Pantsula

South Africa

The boys of Johannesburg's violent townships grew up running, jumping and crawling from the police, facing dangerous lives of gangsterism and crime. Now these boys are men, and their dance shows the way to a new, non-violent future.

I Just Wanna Live My Life, the popular song by Winnie Khumalo scratches out of the car radio as the sky darkens. It’s all hands tapping to the beat and whistling while the car heads to Orange Farm, an impoverished township of Johannesburg, South Africa.

The brake is pushed abruptly and tyres screech as they jump from the car and start dancing in the middle of a busy main road. Feet thumping off the dusty ground, fingers snapping, the dance demands they keep pace with an incredible rhythm, complicated by the clapping and shouting of a spontaneous crowd. As fast as it started, it's over and we’re off among more whistles, boos, accelerations, handbrakes, U-turns.
'So you guys are forever dancing?'
'This is our life.'
'Then you live nice lives.'
'We try, we try.'

Pantsula originated in a gangland world of violent town- ships, back in the days when people sat in taverns starved of entertainment and figures like Al Capone were a source of inspiration. Pantsula became associated with a class of troublemakers: bored youths who defined themselves with aggressive ways of walking, talking, and dancing. Some stuck plastic to the soles of their Converse All Stars to make their footsteps sound more threatening.

Never forget your past mistakes – you must go back and fix them.
Real Action, Johannesburg, South Africa

Mancane, Twinkles, Bhanzela, Jokes and Pele started dancing as kids. It is Sello – or Zillo, as everybody calls him – that gave them a chance. When he founded the group ten years ago, Zillo says he 'wanted to prove a point, in a non-verbal way.' To prove his point, he named the group Real Action. The idea was to give a positive contribution to the community, to keep youths out of petty crime and offer an alternative to boredom –  a chance to excel. 'There is hope through dance', says Twinkles. 'You have to think big.' For him, looking back is bittersweet: 'My criminal involvement goes as far as stealing sugar. But there comes a point where you’re old enough to realize that even stealing sugar is wrong. Somebody works for that money.'

Today they all make a living out of dancing, and when they are not busy rehearsing or performing, they teach kids how to dance pantsula for free. 'Besides the money, we get other things from this job. We gain from what we love', says Pele.

Zillo believes 'the townships have natural talent'. 'Pantsula is such a South African dance. It doesn’t exist anywhere else on earth.' Things are moving fast: Real Action have begun taking their dance out of the townships to America and China. When we found them on YouTube, they had 37 views. When we met them, they were preparing a performance at the 2010 World Cup closing ceremony.

In the back of the car, Twinkles reflects: 'If you succeed in life, you need to know how you got there and never forget your past mistakes; in fact you must go back and fix them.' The others are fooling around, joking, making noise – saying nothing that really means anything –.