CNN’s Larry Madowo Explores Dance As The Universal Language Of The World

In the latest episode of African Voices Changemakers, CNN’s Larry Madowo meets two dancers using the art form to uplift others in Africa and beyond.

Ballet dancer Kitty Phetla is using her career to create space for more Black ballerinas and amplify Black stories. She tells Madowo, “The greatest struggle about being a dancer and also the greatest strength would definitely be our minds. I use movement as a sign of self-respect, respect for the craft and always to be in pursuit of being the master of my craft.”

Phetla was the first Black ballerina to perform the dying swan in Russia. She dazzled the audience, making the performance her own by wearing a black tutu instead of the traditional pink. However, the ‘first’ title is something she doesn’t fully embrace, “The stereotyping of being the first Black ballerina. Oh, it makes me sad, really. You know, because for me, there’s no such thing. I don’t want to be identified as first Black anything, because for me, excellence does not have color.”

She adds, “I’m not the first Black ballerina. Back then, you know, there was a dancer of color who was oppressed and had to be dyed a certain color in order to fit in with the masses of white ballets on stage so I cannot even begin to claim or be on that pedestal.”

Although initially considering karate as her extra-curricular activity after school, Phetla ultimately chose ballet, discovering dance at the age of nine. She says she thought, “I wouldn’t mind looking like that, so poised, you know, walking with straight legs and looking like they are gliding across the floor as they walk.”

Phetla joined the Joburg ballet in 2002 and became a senior soloist and choreographer. Only a few Black ballerinas have risen to Phetla’s prominence, and the choreographer is aiming to change that– starting with the youth, “I think my legacy is that I want to be remembered for breaking boundaries, creating work that’s more in tune with our spirituality.”

Madowo also meets Gaby Saranouffi a dancer and choreographer from Madagascar. Saranouffi acts as a cultural attaché, renowned for uplifting culture and tackling pressing social issues through her dance.

In this role, Saranouffi has been able to foster cultural relations between Madagascar and South Africa. She explains, “The cultural exchange between Madagascar and South Africa is becoming more and more visible national-wise and international-wise through the embassies.”

Jay Pather, Director of the Institute for Creative Arts at the University of Cape Town, praises Saranouffi, “She has a way of digging deep into our history, but reflecting on it with a fierce contempt in a way that I think undercuts stereotypical notions about what you are as an African who you are and also what you are thinking about.”

As Saranouffi has grown, she’s never forgotten to give back. Whether it is to her fellow professional dancers or aspiring youth, “We are at Ulundi Kindergarten in Soweto. I’ve taught here dance associated with the French language with the children. That’s really amazing, you know, what this means to me this space is, it’s home.”

While Saranouffi juggles many hats, she is dedicated to giving every current and future dancer the opportunity to soar, “I think that the determination and the passion, you know, and the reason why I do this because I want a better future for the other artists.”

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