One of the last pieces of advice I received before boarding our South African Airways flight was in the form of a text message from someone that I love very much. It read, “Remember to dance.”
Dance? Everyone knows that I, Katie Porter, do not dance. So why would a year in KZN, South Africa change that? I’m here to serve, to teach, to learn. But certainly not to dance. Dancing makes me uncomfortable – it involves emotion, courage, being free in spirit, outwardly showing happiness. However, a lesson that I am still learning through my years of service is that the only way to grow is to become uncomfortable. I guess if I can serve here, I can try to dance.
Rhythmically usually to music, using prescribed or improvised steps and gestures.
At St. Leo Primary School in Molweni, each morning begins with prayer in the form of singing and dancing. The entire school lines up under the morning sun in their teal uniforms, ready to praise. Most are sung in Zulu – but there is one in both Zulu and English. They sing, “Come down my Lord, Come Down my Lord, my Lord is coming all the time.” They move effortlessly to the rhythm – in sync with one another. Grades R (kindergarten) through 7 join in with bright smiles and deep faith. In class sometimes a learner catches me humming the morning’s tune and laughs. Humming may be the first step toward dancing.
To engage in or perform (a dance).
We were invited to family day at St. Theresa’s Home for Boys. It was a tricky concept to me because I was unsure of each boy’s situation – who exactly were their families? Were their parents alive? If so why were they not living with them?
At St. Theresa’s, dancing on stage is a way in which the boys show off their talent when family members come to visit. It is how they relax in the afternoons, display a natural talent, express themselves without judgement.
One thing that is essential is to engage with these boys in our afternoons at St. Theresa’s. I have Cottage 1 and 2 – the oldest boys at the home, anywhere from 12 to 18. There are two brothers there that I have befriended – Sifiso and Manqoba. At family day they, along with their brother Siyabonga, introduced me to their Auntie. Manqoba told her I needed a Zulu name. She looked at me intently and said “Thandeka” – meaning lovable. Now that I am Thandeka, maybe I can eventually dance like a real Zulu.
A series of motions. Jumps, balances, and turns
Currently Alex and I are teaching verbs to grade 5. I ask the learners to list action words on the board: run, jump, cook, make, wash, clean, do, and always dance. To add some fun to the lesson we ask everyone to stand up and one by one shout out the verbs so that they can act them out.
Minds don’t always dance in the library at St Leo’s. The language barrier makes the simplest tasks difficult. Sometimes I am not sure if anything is being learned or accomplished. Other times I am pleasantly surprised. No matter what - if I say “dansa!” my learners know exactly what I mean and how to put their bodies in motion.
My learners have to balance many struggles in daily life as well as face unsettling turns. I never know what goes on when they leave St. Leo’s. Some will not eat again until they get to school the next morning. Many are orphaned or sick themselves. My life-loving children have to grow up too fast. In the midst of great sadness, they manage to dance without hesitation.
Tradition, performed at a range of social and religious occasions
Funerals are what people in townships do on the weekends. HIV/AIDS has completely ravaged these Zulu communities – taking away pivotal members of every generation. So far I have attended two funerals – Bhekemuzi (46) and Nonduduzo (25). There, the community celebrates life through dance. Dancing and singing at a funeral is both a cry for help to God and a chance to celebrate the life of the deceased.
I have always felt awkward surrounded by a crowds of dancing people. Being the only white people at a funeral or a Zulu mass puts extra pressure on you when everyone is dancing. I am forced to push through my awkwardness and embrace the movement. Dancing eases the devastating reality of the situation. I don’t totally let loose, but clapping and swaying must be a step in the right direction.
Flexibility, strength, endurance, co-ordination, dexterity
The view from our balcony is breathtaking – overlooking the Valley of a Thousand hills sprinkled with the roads and huts of Embo (66% HIV positive). The truth that it displays is heartbreaking and aggravating. South Africa contains two worlds – poor black and wealthy white. The people I serve have to be strong and flexible in order to make a life out of this injustice.
I personally feel weak and inflexible trying to find my place in this confusing existence. The beauty and tragedy of South Africa makes my mind continuously twirl, listening for some kind of harmony. When it comes to the post Apartheid history and the socio-economic realities of this country – I am merely stretching, hardly ready to dance.
Dancing implies a restlessness of the body
A restless body also means possessing a restless mind and a restless heart. As a second year Augustinian Volunteer – I am constantly realizing why I ended up here. Restlessness is what drives me to make myself uncomfortable. Most of my restlessness is in my heart and my mind at the moment – but all the beautiful music and voices of South Africa may allow it to travel to my feet.
Maybe the person who gave me that advice knew something about this experience that I did not; knew something that lies within me that I am not fully aware of. Dancing is freedom and life which is too often lost here in South Africa. Even on days where nothing else makes sense, dancing always does.
I have until December to get used to the idea of letting go of my fear of dancing. I won’t be Zulu kicking anytime soon. But I will certainly try to find joy in movement and power in my emotions. Come December when I leave, I won’t have to tell the people of South Africa to “khumbula ukudansa.” They already know.
South Africa 2009