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Last week, we published an interview with Zama Dance School Director Andrew Warth, about the role of his school in promoting positive self-esteem, healthy habits, and joyful community in South Africa’s townships. Today, we’re bringing you Zama Dance School’s students and alumni in their own words. Read below to hear how ballet shaped their lives.

By Lindsay Alissa King

Hlali Bele

My name is Hlali Bele, and I never thought I would be able to do ballet and tap, nor imagined myself ever performing on stage. Zama Dance School allowed me to realise my capabilities—AND I DID IT! Zama Dance School unleashed certain parts of me that I never thought I had and has hugely impacted my life. It has given me a lot of teachings that are helping me in my day-to-day life. From being taught that it is okay to fail and fail again, and if something isn’t working there’s always another solution. Zama taught me to be patient and that the greatest victories come only after the toughest battles. But above all, I learnt the power of UNITY, I gained a family, and I had a HOME away from home. Thank you, Zama, because of you I DID IT!

Khulile Mbizela

My name is Khulile Mbizela, and I am a former Zama Dance School student. I started doing ballet at the age of 10 whilst in grade 3. At the time I didn’t even know there is this dance called ballet. At first it was hard for me to fall in love with it as I thought it was for girls. Miss Arlene taught me to love it by bribing me with sweets, so I kept coming back. Along the way I met great teachers like Mr. John Simons, Miss Ingrid Carlson, Mr. Andrew Warth, and Miss Leanne Voysey, who is a darling! She is more than a teacher but a mother to us all at Zama. In 2015 I left school and went on to pursue a career in Electrical Engineering which I am currently studying in Bloemfontein. Thank you, Zama Dance School, you helped make me the man I am today. 

Mihlali Shaun Ntshangana

The word ‘Zama’ means, try. Even if something seems impossible, all that matters is that you tried. Persistence is one of the lessons that I learnt at Zama Dance School. My name is Mihlali Shaun Ntshangana, and I am a Zama alumnus. I am currently an engineering intern at Tuboseal Services, and I am working on my dream of becoming a professional Civil Engineer. My journey at Zama has been one big roller coaster. I started at Zama when I was 7 years old and in grade 1 at Mseki Primary School. I still remember running to class every Friday afternoon, wanting to get to class first so that I could try on as many different leotards as I could before training began. In less than a year, I dropped out. I could not deal with the discrimination and criticism that I received for being a male ballet student, especially coming from family and friends. Ballet was classified as feminine in the townships, and if you were a male and did ballet you were [assumed to be] gay. At age 7, this was all too much for me, so I quit. However, when I was 11, I came back in full force and with confidence. Not minding what anyone else was saying, I just wanted to dance, even though I had to start from scratch. I was in the same class as my youngest brother, and I was much taller than everyone else. I began stretching before every class and my teachers, Mr. Andrew and Miss Leanne were incredibly supportive and taught me stretching exercises.  Because of the support I received from my teachers, I worked very hard and enjoyed my classes a lot.

My dancing started improving, and Mr. Andrew encouraged me to stay behind after class to watch the senior class which led to me joining the performance team, which I loved. We performed in different theatres, such as Artscape and the Baxter. Zama became my home away from home. Not only did I learn to dance but I learned how to shave, how to have my hair neatly cut for performances and exams, how to floss my teeth, and to speak English fluently. From early breakfast toast before rehearsals, to sleeping in the Zama bus after a late-night performance, to doing my homework there, Zama was my favourite place to be. I feel like it will always be a part of me, and I’ll always be a Zamarama. I will forever be grateful to my wonderful teachers and everyone involved in making Zama Dance School a great place for all.

Neige Virgilio

My name is Neige Virgilio and if I was to write everything Zama Dance school did for me, I could write a book! I miss everything about Zama Dance school, and I appreciate how it not only nurtured my talent for dance, but shaped my life as a disciplined, goal driven young black woman from the dusty township of Gugulethu. Nobody ever made me feel as if I were too short at Zama, or did not fit the look, or wasn’t good enough. If anything, I was pushed (sometimes past what I thought were my limits) to be the best I could be and despite whatever personal challenges I had, I knew that when I got into the studio, all that didn’t matter, all that disappeared. Thank you for being my mentors, my teachers, my guides, everything that is hard for a little black girl to find in this world. And even though I chose to go the academic route, my first love will always be dance.

Olwethu Sotiya

My name is Olwethu Sotiya. I am 25 years old and the founder and artistic director of the Is’Thatha Dance Project. I established the company in February 2019, specializing in African contemporary dance and art. None of this would have been possible without the foundation laid by Zama Dance School. I attended classes from the age of 8 and was taken under the wing of Arlene Westergaard, Miss Ingrid, and Mr. Andrew. I stayed at the dance school for 9 years, being taught how to be respectful, take responsibilities seriously and have the drive to never give up and always chase my dreams. These values are the cornerstone on which I build my own company and the success achieved so far. My latest achievements are the creation of the highly successful choreography, “Domination,” which was performed at the Baxter Theatre, Theatre Arts in Observatory, Zolani Centre in Nyanga, and at the 2020 virtual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. My team also performed “The Journey” at Artscape in August 2019, and I am currently working on a new creation called “Initiation.”

Sonia Yabo

Sonia Yabo was 5 years old when she began her training at Zama Dance School. She was trained by Arlene Westergaard, John Simons, Ingrid Carlson, and later by Andrew Warth and Leanne Voysey. In 2013 Sonia began her tertiary training at the Waterfront Theatre College where she trained in various dance genres and acquired her dance teachers’ diploma. Since graduating, Sonia has taught in the Free State and at dance schools throughout Cape Town, including Simon Van Der Stel, Groote Schuur primary and Zama Dance School. Sonia is excited to have made a full circle and to be back at her first ballet school, Zama. Sonia feels that without Zama she would never have achieved what she has today and that the school changes and transforms its students. 

Thimna Sitokisi

My name is Thimna Sitokisi, and I am a former Zama Dance School student. I began my dance training at the age of 6 at Zama Dance School under the direction of Miss Arlene Westergaard. Zama taught me a lot about being disciplined and goal-driven, which I’ve carried to my everyday life. After training at Zama for 11 years with Andrew Warth and Leanne Voysey, I decided to pursue a career in dance. In 2016 during my matric year, I auditioned for the Cape Academy of Performing Arts, where I secured myself a 3-year scholarship to study and further my training. I successfully graduated in 2019, obtaining a Diploma in Dance and Drama Related Studies. Then I auditioned for the Cape Town City Ballet where I secured myself a contract with the Company which began in 2020. Zama will forever be a sacred and special place to me.

Tshepang Shumba

My name is Tshepang Shumba, and the first thing I think of when I hear Zama Dance School is “home.” For many of us, Zama was a second home, and it still is to many others. Zama taught me obedience, that I should always work hard for the things I want to achieve in life, whether it be dance or anything else. I personally want to thank Miss Leanne and Mr. Andrew for having to deal with me! I know I was not the easiest student, but thank you for allowing me to be myself, for showing me love, and for the memories you shared and made with me. I am very grateful that you guys were part of my life, and I will always love and cherish you. 

Zanele Ntshangana

My name is Zanele Ntshangana, and I have flashbacks like it was yesterday…me at 8 years old starting Intro class at Zama Dance School. The excitement I used to feel when Sis Vuyokazi came to fetch us from school on Fridays and I was happy when I was promoted to Grade 1. What made me different was that I had been in a car accident and my right foot was badly damaged. It didn’t heal properly, and I was often teased, and I had low self-esteem. Then I met Mr. Andrew, I remember it was his first year teaching at Zama. It’s amazing how he boosted my self-confidence and saw the potential in me that I didn’t see. Thank you, Zama, for not only teaching us ballet but for also teaching us to be respectful, independent and strong.

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