Pantsula revolution! How South Africa's townships dance got political
A quick-stepping dance from the townships has gone mainstream thanks to its crazy energy, competitive edge and campaigning force
In the beginning, it was all about the shoes. In the early 1950s in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, the pantsulas defied their lean material circumstances by dressing in designer clothing. Influenced by American jazz music, they danced with a quick-stepping style, tapping the floor in a way that wouldn’t ruin their expensive footwear.
Sixty years on, pantsula (both the name of the dance and its surrounding culture) still thrives in townships across South Africa, but its character and style have morphed in line with the lives of the people who cultivated it. Only recently has pantsula broken into the mainstream dance world. You can see it in the show Via Kanana, created by the South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma and dancers from the Katlehong township, playing at Shoreditch Town Hall, east London, as part of Dance Umbrella.
Pantsula took its early influences predominantly from tap dance, with traces of jive, gumboot, tribal African dance and everyday gestures like dice-rolling. Its trademark is intricate, on-the-spot rhythmic footwork, where feet twist, shuffle and stamp. But those early pantsulas were as much about style as dancing. With a gangsterish attitude, fancy clothes, expensive liquor and women on their arms, “they’d be the people who were feared the most in the township,” says Maqoma.