Captured: Portraits of the pantsula
HOW PANTSULA WAS DOCUMENTED FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME BY A SOUTH AFRICA PHOTOGRAPHER.
It started out as a fashion project. For photographer Chris Saunders, snapping pantsula township dancers wearing their colorful uniforms of bucket hats and Converse was meant to be a two-month magazine gig. Instead, it became a six-year study on pantsula, a dance form that grew out of South African townships during apartheid.
It was the first time the subculture, largely passed down by oral and musical history, had been documented to a broad extent.
“This is not just people dancing, this is something that means a lot more to this community,” says Saunders. “It's not a global dance trend – it’s a culture that people follow both when they perform and inside their lifestyles.”
Saunders worked on the project with Daniela Goeller, an art historian and researcher at the University of Johannesburg. The pair visited over 30 pantsula crews across Johannesburg, where the dance originated, and beyond.
“Johannesburg is such a complex city,” says the photographer. “There are so many barriers between cultures. Essentially, not growing up in the townships and growing up and in white, middle-class South Africa, automatically you weren't necessarily exposed to township culture. This is very much a culture that was invented within the structure of the township of South Africa, which is an apartheid construct.”
Soon it became clear that every detail of pantsula, from the costumes to the dance steps, told an intricate story of black township life.
“Gumboots dancing, traditional dance, scat culture, and then also American jazz culture – modern pantsula dance is something that developed from all those things, and all the traditional dance steps created a dance form now that has fundamental steps, a history, a uniform. And it became interesting to tap into the first and second generation of a dance culture.”
Historically informed footwork aside, pantsula dancers are also positive role models to at-risk youth in impoverished communities, Saunders added.
"When I photographed a dancer in his uniform as a foreman, it gave him a completely different identity than … his dancer persona," says Saunders. "It's an escape through the performing arts from being that person on the streets not having something to do.”