Dancing across the ocean
Lwando, left, and Odwa have traveled a long way to study ballet in San Francisco. Their journey from the slums of South Africa has been made possible by the efforts of a Coastside woman and her dance teacher. Photo courtesy Michael Powers

A hop, skip and a jump across the Atlantic Ocean from the United States, at-risk children have found a safe environment in which they learn discipline, respect and collaboration through dance. 

Dance teacher Kristine Elliott and her pupil Nani Venegas have journeyed each year to Cape Town, South Africa, offering help and support while introducing budding young dancers to the art of ballet.

“Through the Community United Methodist Church, we’re supporting over 50 children from grade one to grade six after school,” said Venegas. “They go into the classroom, move all the desks and chairs to the side, sweep the floor, and we’re able to teach the children.

“This is the place where they are expected to come,” she continued. “People notice if they are missing, they inquire when they don’t come.”

Many of the children in the dance class are at different levels. The after-school activity provides a safe space for these kids.

“This school or any of these schools keep the children safe for at least a few hours after school at a time that they could be very vulnerable to drugs and bad influences,” said Venegas. “The children love it. They show up day after day after day.”

Venegas and Elliott are working hard to help break down the barriers preventing black dancers from being in the spotlight. 

“There’s a racial issue within the ballet world,” said Venegas. “Many hit the black ceiling.

“Traditionally ballet came from France, the royal courts, and from Russia and Italy. So it wasn’t born in Africa, it had to be a learned experience for them,” she continued. “Although dance, the rhythm and the soul of dance, is certainly in the African community. The influence, the tradition of their bodies, gives them a distinct flavor that is exquisite for us.”

In 2004, an exchange project was born when Elliott and Venegas began bringing promising young dancers from South African township schools to America to study ballet.

The students bunked with local host families. Scholarships were arranged for them to attend the Academy of Ballet and Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet Schools in San Francisco.

This year, two young men, Lwando and Odwa, have traveled from South Africa to Half Moon Bay. While visiting, they will participate in an intensive summer workshop at Alonzo King Ballet School in San Francisco. 

“Alonzo King is a renowned black choreographer who is really making a difference in the ballet world,” said Venegas. “He’s been very generous in welcoming and encouraging the dancers to come.”

Their participation was made possible from generous donations from the Coastside community and beyond.

“It costs about $10,000 per guy to get here for the six-week summer,” said Elliot. “We’ve raised some of that money but it’s ongoing.

“There’s another school that we help support. We try to meet those daily challenges,” she continued. “We’re listening with ears open to see what is going to keep them going. ... We’re willing to support them in many, many different ways.” 

Lwando and Odwa will be dancing at 10 a.m. on Sunday at the Community United Methodist Church in Half Moon Bay. To help support the pair or to learn more visit gugulethuballetproject.org

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