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.”
A competitive dance born in 1950s South African townships continues to narrate black resilience today.
South African pantsula dancer Leballo “Lee” Lenela, 24, pursues her passion in a male-dominated scene.
Listen to the tracks that have shaped Pantsula dance, both past and present.
Young female spinner Stacey-Lee May is changing perceptions about a South African motorsport rooted in township gang culture.
Expensive clothes shredded and cash burned. Are South Africa’s material boys rotten or only misunderstood?
The Amazonian healer keeping his ancient craft alive – on his own terms.
Take a visual journey through Roger Ballen's biography and evolution of style.
Berlin is like nothing the Thai artist has ever experienced. So LURE asked him to depict it.
The iconic Berlin fashion label takes its place in the city’s history.
Berlin may be in flux but you can still survive and thrive as an artist. Here’s how.
Documentary photographer Anne Rearick captured intimate moments in townships such as Khayelitsha and Langa over almost a decade.
Take a visual journey into the life of Magno, a shaman, and his home in the Amazonian jungle.
Tammy Volpe's photography is sensual and intimate – and in Japan that’s controversial.