In pursuit of a dream
His dreams were usually similar and included a series of complicated ballet steps. Large jumps, beats and pirouettes. Phelo loved his dreams enjoying the sensations of gliding through the air, the Jete’s getting bigger and bigger and spinning eight, nine, ten and more Pirouettes at a time on perfect balance. The dreams always ended the same way. After doing a complex beat of the legs, followed by a split jump and repeating the sequence bouncing as if on a trampoline he was interrupted by cramp either in his calf or hamstring. The pain would wake him with such intensity that it forced a stretch to relieve the throbbing agony. It was around 4am when Phelo once again woke leaving him wondering if he was trying to do the steps in his bed. He was now wide awake and in a sweat. The shack, a cold place on this chilly June morning in the township was little comfort. Phelo however always enjoyed the time after his dreams where he would lie in bed and rekindle the sensations.
The shack now quiet, after the steady stream of family and friends wishing him well the night before. Many of the adult had been drinking at the nearby shebeen, and some were drunk as they staggered away into the night and onto the noisy streets. Aunts and uncles chatted over a traditional home brew which had been specially prepared for the occasion. They were generally proud of Phelo and excited for him but they did not understand anything about what he was doing. The concept of making a living out of dance was a difficult one to grasp and further more they had no idea what ballet was. He had grown up with people who could all sing and dance with such natural rhythm. Ballet was something so foreign and strange, how could it ever exist in the township?
Phelo knew that he should get up and be ready for the car that would be taking him away from the shack and township that he had got to know as home. There had been rain in the night and he was almost sure that some of the water had seeped in making the dirt floor damp. He chose rather to reflect in the warmth of his bed. Siphe, a cousin, had told him about the dance classes. They had both played soccer together and Phelo excelled at it. He considered himself as a striker and developed technique and speed. Then one day Phelo discovered that Siphe no longer attended practice but rather spent his afternoons dancing at the old mission church. Out of curiosity and to tease Siphe who he now jokingly called a moffie, Phelo went to see what Siphe was up to.
Just about everybody in the township knew about the white women who taught dance most afternoons of the week. As she drove her beaten up UNO to the old mission building people would wave and call “Fion” which was now her newly adopted name and short for Fiona. Then, close to her mid-forties, she had already had a long career as a professional ballet dancer and had also taught for several years. Originally from England she now lived in Africa for over 20 years. Shortish and slim, her fair complexion freckled and the blondish hair of her youth had turned a light grey. She was jovial and friendly most of the time but did take her teaching very seriously and had a passion to give these impoverished people something special. On that day that Phelo came to visit he remembers seeing Fion sitting in the middle of the studio surrounded by kids no older than seven or eight, upright, legs extended, feet pointed to a perfect point and arms outstretched to the side so that the extended fingers where just touching the floor. In a firm voice she commanded, “point…..Flex…..point…..flex” and demonstrated to perfection exactly what she wanted. The wide eyed girls and boys tried to copy their master. Then they were all on their feet doing spring points, skips and runs completely absorbed in the art of dance. Fion’s attention would shift to a young dancer struggling to skip and gently taking the child’s hand broke the step down to a slow and simpler version. Within moments the others would start to fidget and little bits of chatter would ensue. Then that voice which Phelo would get to know all too well, in later years, would boom out into the room “would you be quiet”, resulting in an instant hush. Soon after that Phelo remembers the delightful voice of praise. “That was very very good, well done, very good” Fion would say in a genuine way that made the young dancers smile. The babies were then given a peanut butter sandwich as they left to continue their afternoon outside.
Phelo adjusts the blankets in the icy shack in an attempt to keep warm. There is the odd grunt and snore from those sharing the dwelling. Phelo’s thoughts returns to that day of the visit. He remembers Siphe sweating as he executed such strange movements and foot work. He had never seen anything like it. Siphe’s concentration was equally amazing and even as Phelo tried to be silly and distract his cousin, Siphe’s focus would not be interrupted. His cousin seemed to be very good at what he was doing. Fion complimented him at regular intervals and spent less time correcting him compared to the other teenagers in the class. Strange piano tunes guiding the dancers as they executed their bazaar movements. Then it came to the jumps and turns, it started to look very exciting. Phelo remembers how he suddenly felt like wanting to get up and try to do what Siphe was doing, but he dare not do that as he would look like a fool trying to mimic their unusual steps. That afternoon on the way home the two boys chatted. Siphe was confident and happy to be a part of the dance project and Phelo somewhat envious of his cousin. “You should give it a try, Phelo” Siphe had said. A few weeks later Phelo heard that his cousin Siphe was on his way to America to attend a Summer School in Toronto, Canada. On hearing this news Phelo deciding that he actually did want to give it a try.
A car can be heard approaching the shack but then passes by. Phelo peels the blankets off feeling around for the clothes prepared the night before. He dresses quickly aware of the damp gravel floor. He finds the table and searches for the matches to light the paraffin lantern. Once lit he rubs his hands together, blowing into them to try to get some warmth into his fingers. The warm glow of the lantern reveals a large tog bag filled with his clothing and dance gear. It’s a small room with a single bed propped up on bricks and a table. A partially open door leads to the rest of the shack. On the table is a bucket, half full with icy water. He plunges his hands and scoops water up to his face and washes. There is no towel, it’s packed with the rest of his meager belongings. Soon the car will arrive and he will be on his way to the airport. There will be no one to see him off. His mother had hugged him the night before and as they looked into each other’s eyes he at first could see sadness but then her eyes turned warm and he knew that she wanted the best for her son. Phelo once again thinks about his other mother, the white woman they called Fion. It was a day in February many years ago. Veld fires had been burning for most of that month, spurred on by dry vegetation and wind. The township was attached to mountains and farm lands which had been affected by a severe drought. A haze of smoke covered the entire area. It was hot and sticky and the Ballet Barre’s had just been put away. The dancers where about to do the first centre practice routine when Fion said “What you put in is what you get out”. It was not the first time that Fion had said this, It had been said so many times before that now it was engrained in his memory. That day was a turning point, Phelo started to work very hard, pushing himself to the limit and now he was getting out what he had put in.
Phelo glances around the dimly lit room wondering if he had packed everything. He reaches for his jacket hanging on a rusty old nail behind the door patting the pockets to finding the bulge that belongs to his wallet and cellphone. Satisfied he sits on the unmade bed and listens for any activity coming from the outside of the corrugated iron clad shack. It’s a Sunday and most peoples day off. The drunkards from the previous night would most likely be sleeping off their hangovers but soon the church goers would be awake. The township will come to life as churches call their flock with blaring music and singers with microphones to a stream of services held throughout the mornings and early afternoon. A marque erected for such occasions was set up not far from Phelo’s home and he was all too familiar with their Sunday routine. The day before Phelo had performed at the local community hall. Fion would have been proud to see how far he had progressed. The youth day celebration show featured a dance to American negro gospel songs. Fion, would not have been shy to express her devotion to her faith and had often prayed with the kids. Phelo could not believe that she had died, many of the other dancers refused to believe it. The Kids attended the funeral service a few days later. The church was filled to the brim with people that Fion had touched in some way or other. Phelo recalls the days and months that let up to her eventual death. Her body riddled with the cancer that finally took her life. This charismatic energy filled woman began to lose her strength and then she was unable to get out of bed. Only then did the grim reality set in and many of the students were convinced that the dance classes would now come to an end. However friends from England had heard about what had happened and people from all over the world made donations to keep the project alive and to help Phelo pursue his dreams.
As Phelo waited he wished that there was a way that he could thank Fion for what she had given him, the opportunities, the love and encouragement. He had grown into a good dancer, he wanted to be even better. Phelo then realized that his thanks would be shown in making the most out of his career and working as hard as he could. That is what Fion would have wanted. The silence was broken by a single, almost polite hoot. Now with jacket on, bag slug around shoulders and a single hard blow to extinguish the lantern, Phelo stepped out into the darkness. He glanced back at the shack and then again as the car drove off. A new life of possibilities lay ahead. He felt sad that Fion was not there to share this moment but also excited for what was to come.