Waltzing out of apartheid's long shadow: John Carlin meets a ballroom king who seeks fame and freedom on the city

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The Independent Online
THE setting is a Soweto community hall. The floor is wooden, well polished. On one side, on chairs tight up against the wall, sit 14 young women, one of whom is reaching into a bag for a pair of golden stiletto-heeled shoes. Across the hall, also sitting, are a dozen young men. They wear jeans, ear-rings, 'New York City' T-shirts, baseball caps back-to-front. They slouch. They smoke. They do not talk.

A ghetto-blaster stands at one end of the hall. Someone presses a button, puts the volume on full and - crackling, distorted - a waltz starts up. One of the boys stands, walks up to a girl and, without looking at her, stretches out a hand. Mutely, she stands up, places her right hand over his left shoulder. She stares, viciously haughty, at the angle where the ceiling meets the wall. Her partner looks away, mimics her. They hold the pose, frozen, for three seconds. He takes a right step forward, she a left step back. Left step forward, right step back. The pace quickens, the feet now a blur, as they dance, angelically, in a wide circle around the room.

'We concentrate on the Viennese waltz, the foxtrot, the quick-step and the tango,' says a prosperous, middle-aged man in suit and tie. A district manager for Toyota and, every weekday evening, the teacher at this establishment, Jabu Vilakazi is a leading member of the African Dance Academy, a ballroom dancing association with thousands of members.

Mr Vilakazi became hooked on 'ballroom' 20 years ago when he went to watch a celebrated British couple, Bill and Bobby Irvine, in Durban. Today he is a professional who competes for money. His charges, the best of them, compete at one level down - 'advanced amateur'.

Also, he trains champions. Mr Vilakazi's star pupil is David Moerane, 23, who has been scooping up prizes for 15 years. He helps Mr Vilakazi with the teaching. He switches partners after each number, pauses in mid-dance to explain a step, a variation, a flourish. Unskilled as some of the girls are, they cannot inhibit his natural grace.

Beyond the dance-floor, out in the real world, Mr Moerane stumbles. He has tried for the past three years to pass his final school exams. He lives with his mother in a two-bedroom, grey-brick house, the township standard. The one gesture to opulence is Mr Moerane's dark blue suit with tails and the shoes he wears for competitions. And there are also the dozens of trophies.

He speaks good English, is bright and purposeful. So why does he always have to repeat his 'matric'? 'At my school the last couple of years 50 per cent of the time we've had no classes. The criminals and the ANC 'comrades' are always disrupting things. They call for boycotts and hit you if you turn up at school . . . The principal was beaten up recently.'

Last year his parents were involved in a divorce and custody battle. 'All the time my mind was drawn to my parents' problems. I couldn't concentrate on my work.' Now those problems have been resolved and he has opted out of school and is doing his 'matric' by correspondence.

'This year I'm sure I'll pass and then I'll get a job with my brother selling insurance. I want to help my mum as she has helped me. She's tired and wants to leave work. I'm the only reason she has to keep working.'

His mother encouraged him to start dancing when he was eight. 'I won my first prize in the under-10 national competition and then I leapfrogged the under-14s to the under-17s. Now, in black competitions I'm winning everything. No one's beaten me in two years. At a competition in Pretoria two weeks ago I won, even though my partner pulled out with four days to go because her boyfriend thought we were having an affair. I found a new partner, we trained for three days and on the fourth we won.'

Two years ago he competed against whites for the first time. They still have a different, racially defined association but increasingly both take part in the same competitions. 'I don't always win against the whites. Sometimes I come second. But I win if the judges are from overseas.'

What's his secret? 'You have to attract the attention of the adjudicator. I don't show off. I start far away from him and then I move gradually across the floor towards him. You need good floor-craft for that. Also I know my opponents; I watch what they do and then I do different variations. The main thing is for you to be in control. I tell my partners: 'I'm the driver. You're the car. You dance to my music. Expect gear-changes at any time.' Then, if I catch the adjudicator's eye, he'll see I'm the best, he'll see I've been given dancing.'

Mr Moerane is brimming with confidence in anticipation of his biggest challenge to date, a national event on 4 April at a five-star Johannesburg hotel. He hopes victory there will lead to trips abroad, sponsorship for which has only - so far - been granted to whites. 'I want to go professional, maybe in four years' time. But my dream, by big, big dream, is to dance overseas.'

Whether he goes or not, he and others under Mr Vilakazi's tutelage will soon become international television celebrities, the BBC being busy at the moment filming a South African version of Come Dancing. Mr Vilakazi has granted them unlimited access to his charges but on condition that they provide him with the 1992 set of the Come Dancing series.

Mr Moerane is thinking of finding a white dance partner - a virtual guarantee of a ticket overseas. 'Whoever is my partner, whatever my economic circumstances, I'll always dance. Maybe I have problems at school, at home, maybe my mother is upset. But when I go dancing I concentrate totally and all my problems are forgotten. Of course, dancing isn't life. It's just a sport. But it's where I would like to achieve something.'