UCT School of Dance, 80 years on

1 Jul 2014 - 14:15

UCT School of Dance, formally known as UCT Ballet School, celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2014. The School was founded in 1934 by South African Prima Ballerina Dulcie Howes and initially formed part of the South African College of Music, headed by Professor WH (Daddy) Bell. The School is very proud of its alumni and of its history of training some of the most talented dancers and choreographers in the country. During the height of apartheid, famous students included, Christopher Kindo, Robert Philander, Nigel Lucas and many other students of colour. Today, it is a vibrant, contemporary and multi-disciplinary teaching space staffed by 6 full-time staff as well as 6 guest-teaching professionals. Although it is one of the smaller academic departments within the Faculty of Humanities, it is one of the most sought after dance training destinations on the continent. 

Humanities News sat down with alumnus and current Director of the School, Gerard Samuel to discuss the significance of the 80-year milestone as well as the important developments that have taken place over time.

HN: The School of Dance is still a very niche institution and notoriously difficult to gain entry to. Where do most of your students come from?
GS: We set the bar high and there are stringent entrance criteria. As a result, the School has a tiny annual intake of approximately 120 students. Currently, we attract the bulk of these students from within South Africa. We hold auditions twice a year and most of our academic staff members host Master Classes in Johannesburg and Durban as part of our recruitment drive. Since we also function as a feeder to the top dance companies in the country, it’s important that we seek out and recruit only the most talented. We are also a popular destination for international students who are attracted to the diversity of our dance courses.  Over the last 5 years we’ve welcomed students from Namibia, Botswana, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. This year, we will host around 45 American students who come to UCT as part of the Semester Study Abroad programme. 

HN: In your view, what is the significance of the 80th anniversary and what are some of the fundamental shifts that have occurred in the School over time?
GS: We are one of the oldest School of Dance attached to a university in the world and so I think the anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on our past and to plan for the future.. The name change in 1997 was quite significant because it enabled us to take on a new identity through broadening our curriculum beyond classical ballet training to include Contemporary dance and African dance (in all its complexity). American Jazz dance; Spanish dance as well as other European national dance forms were already part of the dance styles being taught here. In addition, the school had engaged with Western dance history, music literacy, and teaching methods for classical ballet, . The biggest changes have occurred around Dance teaching methods courses that reflect the two newer dance disciplines: African Dance and Contemporary Dance, introduced in the late 1990s. The recurriculation of the BMus degree programme in 2008 represented a significant shift from the previous format. The degree programmes used to consist of an African Dance specialization and a Ballet specialization. These have been replaced with three distinct academic streams: a pedagogue stream; a performers stream and researcher stream. The School began offering its first, bachelors level degree programmes in 1998 which, after offering dance diplomas for a many years, represented a significant change in the type of qualification offered here.  

From a staffing perspective, we begin to see internal transformation during late 1980s Sharon Friedman joins as contemporary dance teacher in 1989 and Maxwell Rani joined as an African dance lecturer in 2001. I was appointed to my current position in 2008 and it’s worth mentioning that I am the first black director at the School of Dance. Prior to this, the School was largely a white institution with regards to the academic staff compliment. In terms of our current demographics, the staff profile is still predominantly white, female and over 60 and although this is quite normal for dance institutions around the world, it does provide us with an opportunity to develop a localized succession plan as well as an opportunity to reinvigorate the curriculum. We are incredibly fortunate to have the expertise of seasoned and well-respected teaching professionals and choreographers. The reality is that over the next few years, we will be looking at identifying individuals who are at the forefront of innovative dance pedagogy, to occupy future posts here.

All of these changes have occurred as we respond to shifting notions of concert theatre, social dance, teaching, choreography and performance. It’s important to remember that our school’s history is tied to the history of this country. Post 1994 and in fact during the period of the 80’s, the enormous transformation occurring in the country impacted on the cultural scene too. Dance is part of the expression of the culture of a society, so when the culture of the society is changing, dance and its associated industries will also change. Historically, Classical ballet was the only form of dance supported by the previous regime, through the Performing Arts Councils. In the current democracy, we see a reconfiguration of the meaning of heritage, of art and culture. We have seen the disbandment of the Performing Arts Councils and the development of a new National Arts Council to disburse funds to artists. All of these changes have impacted the kind of dance courses and teaching that happens at UCT because we are located within a South African context. Although we are part of a global community, we are also in a space to interrogate and celebrate our African identity. 

HN: Is a study of dance the preserve of students from advantaged backgrounds only? How do talented individuals, lacking in formal training, gain access to UCT School of Dance?
GS: For most of our students, the minimum requirement is proven experience of at least 3 years. In the case of classical ballet either the Royal Academy of Dance or Cechetti Society intermediary certification is a requirement for entry into the classical ballet courses. The 3-year minimum requirement applies across the 3 streams of dance offered at UCT. For African and Contemporary Dance students, they need to demonstrate that they have attained a minimum of 3 years of training under a registered professional. The major point of entry is the practical audition. All applicants must pass this before we can even consider them. We do get students who have 3 years of say Hip-hop training in their local town hall. We invite these students to auditions so that we can assess whether they have the sufficient skill so that when we offer them further training, they have the capacity to pass each year.  Outside of this, the only way we can assist interested high school students (who may currently lack formal training) is to encourage participation in community dance projects such as ‘Dance for All’ and ‘Ikapa’. A range of local dance companies coordinate outreach programmes and that’s one way of filtering talented students into the process. I do believe that there are too few options for prospective dance applicants in South Africa at present.  The development of new universities may  provide a space for additional dance training institutions at this level. The question is: what kind of intellectual activity will they construct around Dance?

HN: You are also a graduate of the School having been mentored by Dudley Tomlinson, David Poole and former director, Mignon Furman. From student to Director, what’s it like to have come full circle?
GS: It sometimes still feels strange that I sit in the very office where David Poole was once ‘captain of the ship’. But mostly, I feel honoured that my peers recognize that I have something to offer and that I can safely steer us in the unchartered waters. I think I have a valuable set of skills that include my previous roles as professional ballet dancer, contemporary dance choreographer, Lecturer and pioneer of disability arts. This new hat as PhD dance scholar and researcher is one that I know both Poole , Ms Fiske( my first dance history lecturer), Ms. Jasmine Honore and Prof Elizabeth Triegaardt  can be proud of.

HN: What kind of careers options are available to UCT School of Dance graduates? 
GS: The potential for career growth is considerable because of the way our curriculum is structured. Some of our graduates go directly into opening their own businesses or dance studios. Most join professional dance companies in shorter-term contracts occupying posts such as choreographers and professional dancers. Our graduates are also employed in large part as Dance Teachers in schools falling under the Western Cape Education Department. Dance Studies (within the Schools system) have been endorsed by government as a learning area so many of our graduates find work in primary and High schools across the Western Cape region. We may soon reach a threshold of teachers for the Western Cape, which I hope will result in more and more alumni being employed in other provinces. There are so many illustrious students of the school. Since the 1980s the list should include: Laveen Naidu (now director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, New York); Desire Davids (independent solo artist based in France  & SA); Johan Jooste (former principal dancer of CAPAB Ballet Co.  and later Cape Town City Ballet); Sean Bovim (artistic director of Bovim Ballet) and Debbie Turner (director of CAPA Dance Company). 

(Photographs: Katherine Traut, Viral Visionary)