Drawn to the dance movement for its story as well as its spontaneity and complex footwork, photographer Chris Saunders’ project “Pantsula” documents the dancers’ portrayal of their history through dance.

In a major exhibition to be shown in the US next year, Saunders highlights an enthralling tale of life in Johannesburg for the black and migrant populations in the era of apartheid, post colonisation, the British Occupation and the Gold Rush. With a rich oral tradition, stories in African culture have traditionally been relayed through the spoken word, song and dance. “Pantsula, for me, is the modern version of this,” remarks Saunders. “It’s the culmination of many of the diverse, traditional groups that met in the economic hub of Johannesburg.”

Dancers from Rozary Productions on top of concrete toilets in their neighbourhood in the Dukhatole settlement

Dancers from Rozary Productions on top of concrete toilets in their neighbourhood in the Dukhatole settlement

Originating in the South African city of Johannesburg, Pantsula was first established in the 1950s. However, “it really came into its own during the student uprisings of the 1970s and 80s, when the youth of South Africa chose to rebel against the oppressive apartheid government,” explains Saunders. During apartheid, the South African government passed the Native (Urban Areas) Act of 1923, proclaiming that their cities were the preserve of the white people. Under this act, black residents and migrants were evicted from central city neighbourhoods and relocated to townships. It was in these townships that Pantsula flourished, bringing together diverse groups of men from different communities and tribal groups to communicate their shared experiences of apartheid through dance.

Dancers from the Rozary Productions crew performing in a street in Dukhatole

Dancers from the Rozary Productions crew performing in a street in Dukhatole

Like many art forms, performances of Pantsula are a response to political and cultural issues. Drawing on the plethora of traditions and cultures in the townships, Pantsula represents the mixing of traditional practices and art forms, including dance. “I have always documented cultures I find fascinating, cultures that have broken away from the constraints of society and developed their own voice,” says Saunders. “Pantsula is one of those cultures.”

With such a variety of people in the townships, a code language called Tsotsitall — a combination of South Africa’s 11 languages — also developed there during the 1980s. Derived from the word “Tsotsi” meaning “thug”, or “robber”, the language, like Pantsula, stemmed from the gang culture in the townships. Initially inspired by Western dance forms, such as hip-hop, which grew from the gang culture of marginalised ghetto communities, Pantsula dancers have long been linked with gang culture and crime. Confined to the outskirts of the cities, gangs were rife within Johannesburg’s townships. Using violence and crime as a tool to manipulate and resist the white system, some in the sidelined black and migrant communities turned to robbery and mugging. Pantsula dancers were mostly “small-time criminals” who later gained a reputation as “tricksters and scam artists”, explains Saunders. However, Pantsula these days is “a modern dance form pushing itself away from its dark past and stereotypes”, he adds. Gaining more international recognition, groups now perform on television and tour worldwide. “It’s a force to be reckoned with and a very significant piece of the identity of South Africa and Johannesburg as a city.”

The Simunye on Fire dance crew

The Simunye on Fire dance crew

Born in South Africa, Saunders now lives in Paris, but has spent the majority of his life in his home country. “It’s taught me everything I know,” he says. Always interested in documenting its cultures and its people, it is hardly surprising that an initial research and photography assignment for Colors magazine in 2010 has led to years of fascination with the dance culture and people of Johannesburg.

A second-generation member of the Via Broom dance crew in Watville Township

A second-generation member of the Via Broom dance crew in Watville Township

At first, the Pantsula dancers were understandably suspicious of Saunders, apprehensive that a white South African photographer would misunderstand and misrepresent their art. Months spent watching and gaining the trust of the dancers proved invaluable, allowing him to time his shots to the rhythm and speed of the dance. Characterised by symmetry and bright pops of colour, his images owe their precise, vibrant atmosphere to their subjects. “The culture has a defined style and a specific fashion code and you can see this in the images,” he says.

Sicelo Xaba, co-author of a book about Pantsula, showcasing some dance moves outside a bar in Mohlakeng Township

Sicelo Xaba, co-author of a book about Pantsula, showcasing some dance moves outside a bar in Mohlakeng Township

To ensure that he correctly documents the story of people and places he photographs, he ensures that he talks to his subjects before he takes their photograph. “I always like to remind myself that I am capturing another human being and immortalising their image,” he adds. “This project is about more than just documenting dancers, it’s about identity, specifically South African and Johannesburg identity.”

I have always documented cultures that have broken away and have developed their own voice

Capturing this slice of South African identity is important to Saunders, who, in collaboration with two others, will soon be releasing a book on the dance. Having forged deep relations with the dancers, Saunders feels strongly about supporting the culture that has contributed so much to his work. “My collaborator Daniela and three prominent Pantsula dancers are setting up a company that will help to promote the tradition,” he says. A percentage of the proceeds from the forthcoming book will be donated to this to support the future of the dance and its culture.

Members of the 325 dance crew in Orange Farm Township
The VIP Dance crew (for Very Important Pantsula) strutting their stuff in Sebokeng Township
Two of the Via Broom crew preparing a dance track in Watville

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