Expanding Access: The Gugulethu Ballet Project

By Carrie Gaiser Casey

December 1, 2017, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Young girl sitting in forward split, smiling
Picture of town
Gugulethu Project Zolani Township Photo by Elaine Mayson

When you first meet Bay Area ballet teacher Kristine Elliott, it’s impossible not to be swept off your feet by her joyous laugh. The former American Ballet Theatre soloist radiates generosity and kindness, like a pixie-sized Lilac Fairy. For the past thirteen years, Elliott has brought this positive spirit and her teaching expertise to an area of the world marked by racism, violence, and poverty. In the townships of South Africa, Elliott has been transforming the lives of disadvantaged children through the study of classical ballet.

Teacher smiling while showing the steps
Kristine Elliott / Gugulethu Project Photo courtesy of artist

Like everything in South Africa, the name of Elliott’s organization, the Gugulethu Ballet Project (GBP), reflects the legacy of apartheid. “Gugulethu” means “our pride” in Xhosa, one of the languages spoken primarily by black South Africans. Gugulethu is also a place, a township created in the 1960s when other black quarters became overcrowded near the city of Cape Town. As Elliott explains, “People were told they had to go live there. They made the most of their neighborhood and built up a place that was theirs. And against all odds called it ‘Our Pride.’”

Gugulethu is also the first township that Elliott visited, beginning in 2004 as a guest instructor for Dance For All, which serves underprivileged youth in South Africa. Elliott has traveled to South Africa every year since, with key support from the Flora Family Foundation, Arnold Rampersad at Stanford University’s Office of the Dean of Humanities, and many generous individuals. GBP frequently partners with Bay Area dance organizations. In 2009 Elliott, with support from the Young Presidents Organization, created a residency and cultural exchange program at Stanford University for four South African dancers. And, through a travel course that Elliott instituted for the LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals) program at St. Mary’s College, under the guidance of Claire Sheridan, about thirty dancers from around the U.S. have accompanied Elliott to South Africa since 2011. Currently GBP sponsors two dance schools in South Africa, Dancescape in Zolani township in the Western Cape and eYona in Khayelitsha, located in the Western Flats near Cape Town. The Project also funds scholarships for intensive summer study in the United States by talented South African students.

Apartheid may be defunct as a governmental policy, but its legacy endures in the living conditions of the townships. Most of the dwellings are one room shacks without running water. Bathing, drinking, and cooking each require individual trips with a bucket to the town spigot. The taxi vans that serve as the main transportation for the townships’ residents cost 10 rand, no matter where you go – to the end of the line or the beginning, and they don’t give change. You can wait as long as an hour and a half for a van. Then there is the violence. Elliott recalls asking one student, Bathembu Myira, about a hole in a shirt he wore to class one day. Bathembu told her that it was the shirt his brother had on when he was caught in gang related cross-fire, shot in the heart, and killed.  

Young girl sitting in forward split, smiling
Gugulethu Project Photo by Andrew Warth

Given these conditions, Gugulethu Ballet Project offers not only dance classes but material support. The organization provides lunches and maintains an emergency fund for vehicle repairs, dental emergencies, and other unforeseen circumstances. Upon this foundation of dancer health and safety, Elliott teaches what she calls “life skills” through dance. “The principles inherent in the study of ballet, including self-discipline, perseverance, respect for the self and the integrity of the body, are all transferable into the daily lives of the students,” she writes. And there are other benefits to dance training. Ballet teaches cognitive skills important for child development such as counting, distinguishing right from left, and remembering multi-step directions. Moreover, the artistic expression in ballet can be cathartic for youth living in difficult circumstances. GBP provides a refuge from, and an alternative to, the violence and crime that plague South Africa’s townships.

Some of the students have gone on to professional international careers with Rambert Dance Company, Cape Town City Ballet, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, and with tours of the Broadway hit The Lion King. Many have returned to South Africa to start their own dance companies and schools, such as the aforementioned Bathembu Myira, who returned in 2015 and opened eYona in Khayelitsha township. This summer, GBP sponsored two dancers, Odwa Makanda and Lwando Dutyulwa, to study at Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet summer program. Past recipients of the scholarship program have studied at Academy of Ballet in San Francisco, Zohar School of Dance in Palo Alto, Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in New York and the Alvin Ailey School in New York.

On December 18, Gugulethu Ballet Project will host a conversation between American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Misty Copeland and Laurene Powell Jobs, at City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco. All proceeds from the event will go to supporting the Gugulethu Ballet Project. Copeland herself got her start in ballet at an outreach program, the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club. She also serves as the figurehead for the American Ballet Theatre diversity initiative Project Plié and as a passionate advocate for breaking down economic and racial barriers to ballet training. As she writes in her memoir Life in Motion, “[A]mong disadvantaged children, or children of color who are often not exposed to this art form, I believe that ballet provides much to learn.” The December 18 event promises to be an enlightening discussion of diversity in ballet from one of its most visible trailblazers.

Young girl performing port de bra in a classroom
Gugulethu Project Photo by Laura Blatterman

For her part, Elliott views diversity of body type, skin color, background, and experience as absolutely essential to growing the art form of ballet. She has personally witnessed how changing the demographics of ballet enriches and broadens its aesthetic. In 2008, Elliott brought a ballet by Bay Area choreographer Amy Seiwert, The Gift, to stage in South Africa. Elliott and original cast member Emily Hite taught the piece to the dancers as meticulously and as accurately as possible. “We wanted to honor Amy,” Elliott recalls. But when the piece was finished, the two women stepped back and said, “This is a new dance.” Even while dancing the same steps, the South African dancers brought a different energy that transformed the choreography of the ballet. Elliott reflects, “I just always learn so much more than I give in South Africa. There’s a reciprocation of learning. They teach me about what is valuable in life – about community, family, and music.”

Every small donation to Gugulethu Ballet Project counts to assist with tuition, the nutrition program, ballet shoes, and salaries for the South African dance teachers. While the needs in the township might seem limitless, Elliott maintains a characteristically positive attitude. “One by one, you help one by one. And what seems to be sort of an overwhelming task, to look at these beautiful talented children, and they have nothing in the world, but the power of dance can change their lives.”

Carrie Gaiser Casey, PhD is a dance researcher and writer who serves on the Board of the Gugulethu Ballet Project. Since 2011 she has taught dance history for the LEAP program at St. Mary’s College. Currently Carrie is researching the working processes of choreographers Cathy Marston and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa through a grant from the San Francisco Ballet.