Disadvantaged children given chance to shine at Baxter Theatre
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Twenty-one years later and I’m still in the honeymoon phase, said Glenda Jones.
She founded the Ayana/Afrika Ablaze dance school to give disadvantaged children the chance to dance even if they couldn’t afford to pay for classes - and more than two decades later, it’s still thriving.
Some of the school’s alumni have gone on to become professional dancers on the international stage, some have opened their own dance studios and all were sent out into the world with a little more self confidence thanks to the opportunity Jones made sure they were afforded.
“We have such dramatic examples of how a child’s life can change when there is quiet generosity,” Jones said. “You see them really undergo a metamorphosis. They come out so excited and alive, so inspired by themselves.”
In celebration of its 21st birthday, Afrika Ablaze is preparing to stage a new show called I Am Rain, inspired by the recent drought which threatened to cripple Cape Town.
“It’s a euphoric event, having so many young souls coming together and dancing,” Jones said. “Every year feels like our first show. That’s why I never get bored or tired.”
She draws on the stories coming out of the world to turn into inspiration for new dance choreography and concepts - but the ones closest to home are most powerful.
“The world itself is a canvas for me to work from, especially the lives of the disadvantaged,” she said. “I’m totally connected to the scourge of poverty. That really keeps me going.”
Jones said every time she discovered children with hope and passion for dance despite the most challenging circumstances, it renewed her excitement.
“I work with the most incredible fighters. They may not always be the most talented, but they are amongst the most dedicated people on this planet. They have so little to cling to, but they pour out the most beautiful replenishment.”
Jones said Ayana/Afrika Ablaze didn’t need to recruit children, because those desperate to dance found their way to the studio.
“We’ve kept a very simple strategy: the kids migrate towards us. Ninety-nine percent of them don’t have the advantage of paying for dancing,” she said. “If you work really hard, you get a bursary, so you don’t pay. Instead of having a fancy studio with fancy prices and fancy kids, this place has always been sacred.”
Jones said through the art and discipline of dance and being invested in by someone who sees their potential, the children were transformed.
“The children who migrate towards the company are so deserving of being exposed to the arts and they heal beautifully. They develop into such confident kids,” Jones said.
Dancer Tessa Campbell joined Ayana/Afrika Ablaze while she was at Plumstead High School. Now, she owns her own dance company.
She joined the group when it was still small, and loved the experience of being part of the crew and getting to take part in performances. But this was just the first step in her dance career.
“After Afrika Ablaze I started belly dancing, and I fell in love with belly,” Campbell said. She began teaching classes in her teacher’s studio and eventually took over the studio.
Now, she has broken away to establish Hip Connection in Rondebosch. “As of last month I’ve started my own school,” she said. “I do love teaching.”
Campbell is completing post-doctoral studies in archaeology at UCT, but still carves out time to dedicate to sharing her love of dance. “Dance is my side thing, but it’s my passion,” she said. “If you love it, you make a plan.”
Beyond giving her opportunities to travel locally and perform on stage, the years Campbell spent training at Afrika Ablaze also shaped her ethos towards dance, which she has carried into her newly established studio.
“Because Glenda’s focus was on outreach and youth development, it really formed how I think about dancing,” she said.
Jones said the upcoming show would feature 40 Ayana/Afrika Ablaze dancers, of whom 20 were senior dancers and would be an exuberant experience to watch as they celebrated 21 years of dance.
I Am Rain will be at the Baxter Theatre from April 14 to 18.