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They soar above a harsh reality

Published Jun 17, 2003

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By Dina Kraft

Flashing smiles and leaping across the cracked tiled floor, a ballet class of township children follow their lead.

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He is a young American dancer who has come both to teach and learn.

Chidozie Nzerem, a 26-year-old with the San Francisco Ballet, said coming to Africa was a chance to explore his own roots.

"I wanted to feel my own culture and see where I come from," said Nzerem, whose father is Nigerian. Currently on loan to dance with the South African Ballet Theatre, Nzerem is also taking time to coach a class of about 30 children in Mamelodi.

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It is a far cry from San Francisco: a sprawling township packed with rows of small brick houses, haircuts sold on the roadside along with tyres, phone calls, onions and eggs.

The ballet class meets twice a week, part of an outreach programme sponsored by the South African Ballet Theatre.

But on this day, their teacher of over a year has come to say a sad farewell. He was recently robbed at gunpoint outside their classroom, a detached hall belonging to a local church, and has decided it is time to return to America.

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Outside the class of pirouettes and plies, the children must face a daily reality of crime, unemployed parents and Aids.

But here, in the ballet class, they get to soar. "(Ballet) keeps us away from the streets. I feel happy when I do ballet," said nine-year-old Masego Dilebo. "I feel like I'm flying."

Dilebo, wearing her school uniform - a blue and white chequered skirt and white blouse - narrows her eyes in concentration as Nzerem positions her arms and feet, before plucking her into the air.

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"She's incredible," Nzerem marvels. "The way she holds her body ... how they carry themselves makes a difference."

Dilebo is one of several children from the class who have been selected to study at the ballet school of the State Theatre in Pretoria.

Nzerem's muscles ripple as he leads the children in a series of exercises and inspects their positioning. Holding hands in a circle, the children raise one leg at a time. Some wobble.

"I know, I know, it hurts. But if you do it everyday you will build your muscles and will be able to do it without holding hands," he tells the dance students, who range in age from five to 18.

"Perfect," he says, walking past a nine-year-old girl in braids. "Perfect." - Sapa-AP

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