‘I don’t need drugs to be high; dance is my opium’

Nomsa Manaka. Picture: Itumeleng English Independent Newspapers

Nomsa Manaka. Picture: Itumeleng English Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 11, 2024


Celebrated dance teacher Nomsa Manaka has come full circle, in almost all areas of her life, thanks to her craft.

She is back at Funda Centre in Diepkloof, Soweto, where it all started in 1984.

Her “second coming” is as a result of her dance studio at the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown being vandalised, stripped naked. All that’s left of her dream and hard work are the mirrors on the walls.

This loss is best captured in the words of her granddaughter, who was 12 when the dance studio was laid to ruin in the July 2021 unrest: “Our happy place is gone.”

Manaka herself says: “It has disrupted my life, basically.”

When she tells the story of how she got to be at the Walter Sisulu Square, you’d be convinced it was fate, just the stars aligning. Two people she approached virtually said the same thing, albeit in different words: “Perfect. What do you want? Send us a quote. We will pay.”

A guy, one of the two benefactors, read about her in a newspaper article. He called and said he wanted to help. When she left the meeting, “the EFT was done”.

In no time, she had a well-equipped dance studio running. All she did was pack it with impressionable kids willing to learn the moves that took Manaka all over the world: “I don’t train people to be professional dancers. It is up to them to decide. I train people to find themselves, through dance.”

But then life got in the way. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “Very few people survive it. I was told I was in the 5% of the people worldwide who survived it.”

She took a sabbatical, only returning in 2018.

This ‘happy place” would become the haunt of children from Kliptown, even kids from Eldorado Park. “They were extremely insecure,” Manaka recalls, “against their Model C school peers. We started empowering them.”

But the criminal mind was working full-time to lay her dreams to waste.

“First, the studio was flooded. It was a wooden floor. This was in 2021. I couldn’t focus. Cancer recurred. When I went back in 2022, it was finished. The only thing remaining there are the mirrors.”

This is how she finds herself at Funda, the space initially secured by her husband, renowned arts practitioner Matsemela Manaka.

She hopes to recreate what she had in Kliptown at Funda. “What I like about Funda is that it is central. People get off at Bara.”

You’d think such a setback would crush her. Maybe any other mortal, yes; just not Manaka.

She dances through personal ordeals.

“Dance has given me my life. Against all the adversities I faced, dance gave me all. The only time I couldn’t dance was when I lost my baby brother, Prince.

Prince Kupi, a guitarist of fair distinction, died in 2008. “I didn’t even know I was depressed,” she says of how his passing affected her.

After Prince, their mother followed soon thereafter “of a broken heart”.

For five years she couldn’t dance.

“I started dancing again when my son suggested I write a book, titled ‘Dancing Out of Cancer’.”

Nomsa has two boys, poet Makomele, affectionately known as Mak, and a younger brother.

“Through dance, I helped Mak learn how to walk again,” she thinks back to the fateful day when her son was crippled in an accident.

“He was in hospital for nine months. I asked them to discharge him.” She single-handedly nursed Mak back to rude health, doing physio.

At the time, she was with a firm in the West End of London.

When she came back home – to pick up the kids so they could spend time with them – the accident happened. “I found solace in dance.”

“I used to go to physio at the hospital. I used to see what injuries could do to people.” She couldn’t countenance her child “vegetating” like some of the people she saw.

She took him to a “normal” school, where he was the only child in a wheelchair.

The accident happened in 1995. Matsemela, her husband, died in 1998. “I didn’t even have time to mourn Matsemela. I danced. I worked out.”

She was doing post-grad in arts administration in Ireland. This network of connections led her to London.

That phrase again: Life happened. Mak was injured. Badly.

She danced herself and her son through the episode.

Years later, she discovered she had cancer. It could easily have killed another person of lesser resilience. Not the dance teacher, self-trained in ballet.

“I started a movement, a concept called Dancing out of Cancer, now a partnership with the Soweto Theatre. It gives hope to survivors and the afflicted. We do it through concerts.

“It revives them.”

Dance is her opium. “I thank dance every day. I give thanks and my praises to dance.”

Her life story is fascinating. She won a scholarship to dance in the US. They asked her to show them the African dances. “But it hit me that I did not know our dances,” she says.

Her husband introduced her to a friend, Rashaka Ratshitanga, a gardener at the University of Venda then, who wrote a book that was read at the university.

Ratshitanga knew about Domba, the TshiVenda dance, which is an initiation dance for girls. “Then I started learning other dance forms.”

In 1986, Caiphus Semenya wrote a play. “Bua”, which started in Zimbabwe. Many of the exiles came to watch it. In 1988, I went along – as a dancer. We went to Nigeria, where we stayed longer. Through ‘Bua’, we travelled extensively. During breaks, I learnt other dances. When we came back home, I started teaching West African dances.

“In London, I worked with Ajido, a Ghanaian group. Their outfits were amazing. But when it came to South African dancers, the outfits were outrageous, they were half naked!”

This was the influence of ‘Ipi-Tombi’, Manaka says. She was aghast at the show of flesh.

“When I started focusing on South African dances, I insisted on proper costumes.” She relies on the elders to guide her on this score.

“Our dances are being done properly now, proper Kiba outfits.”

At least, that’s one thing I’m happy to have contributed.

She is crazy about the Pantsula dance, which she says “created a world for us”.

Other countries have always been woke, Manaka says. “When they perform, they do their own things. Pantsula, I respect it. Amapiano, I listen to it. I love it. This is us; this is what we created. If you play this genre. My body just moves.”

And then she does a few impromptu moves for us!

You cannot argue when she says: “Dance keeps you young.”

She gives thanks to the pioneers who walked the path – traipsed the dance floor – before her, people like Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell, the Dancers of Harlem. And Margot Fonteyn.

Of Ailey, she says: “The piece he choreographed in 1969 is still played to wide acclaim up to this day.

“Dance is my life.”

The Star

Don Makatile

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