Review: Dancing towards a South African storm

BALLROOM dancing has long been a source of easy irony for film-makers - the suggestion that behind the sequinned grins and practised rapture lie competitive envy and petulance. But 'Township Tango' (BBC 2), which started Beloved Country, a new series of documentaries about individual South Africans, managed to refresh the conceit. Their ballroom dancer was a nurse and the off-stage back- stabbing was the real thing.

Frankly, you would have been grateful for something as simple as a stab in the back. Dorothy Mphahlele works at Baragwanath Hospital, which receives the casualties from the combat zone of Soweto. It is also an informal research department into the reckless ingenuity with which one human can harm another. In one scene, in which Dorothy was filmed working the Saturday-night shift, patients lay everywhere, mutilated and damaged (they stick fluorescent stickers marked 'Urgent' on the foreheads of those who might die if they join the queue). A doctor held up an X-ray which revealed that the man moaning on a nearby trolley had the blade of a kitchen knife embedded from the bridge of his nose to the roof of his mouth, a wound which didn't appear to qualify him for a sticker.

Dorothy hadn't escaped such violence herself. She had been out of competition for seven months after being shot in the calf and the film observed her wincing return to the dance floor, an arena where she could briefly forget the violence of everyday life. Even there she couldn't forget politics, because though there are now multiracial competitions, the judges are still white and black dancers have difficulties in finding proper training facilities.

Christopher Terrill, the film's producer, wasn't out to play down the obvious contrasts. The determined glamour of Dorothy's competitions were intercut with film of her boyfriend Mandla S'hlakula at work as a Soweto policeman, scenes which replaced easy-listening favourites with the sound of gunfire. I don't know whether they were simultaneous in real life but they were edited to look that way on screen, delivering a powerful image of the persistence of violence.

Elsewhere, in a scene of mild comedy, you saw how the most innocuously domestic decision has inescapable political consequences. Dorothy wants to move out of Soweto to a larger house and a nicer neighbourhood but Mandla likes the liveliness of the township - as they sit in her tiny, spotless house poring over the property pages they looked like Thelma and Bob from The Likely Lads, bickering about social climbing and local roots. But the suburb in question is Dawn Park, where Chris Hani was assassinated, and Mandla's reluctance was a calculation that staying in Soweto offered better odds of survival if civil war broke out than isolation in a white community. This was no easy decision - policemen are hated figures in the townships and shortly afterwards a colleague was killed in an ambush.

There were moments when the film- makers seemed to have arranged a collision between public and private life - as when Dorothy danced alongside Nelson Mandela at an open air rally that had featured in news reports last year. But for the most part, the overlap between headlines and individual anxieties was entirely natural. 'You know we are going to be like Somalia,' said Dorothy at one point, capturing the nervously apocalyptic mood that pervaded the film. In case you thought she was exaggerating, Terrill flashed up a caption pointing out that 1167 people had died in political violence in the two months following the announcement of an election date. 'Getting killed in South Africa as a black person - you don't even have to think about it, it can happen any time,' she added a little later, and in that case events backed her up rather than statistics - the film ended with the funeral of a member of the dance club, who had been robbed and shot. In tails and tulle his friends performed a melancholy, cramped waltz down the aisle of the church to say goodbye.

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