The History of Pantsula in South Africa
A dance born in 1950s TOWNSHIPS continues to narrate black resilience.
As a locomotive rumbles over the sleepers below, it creates a beat as steady as a metronome.
It's a rhythm ingrained in the collective consciousness of black South Africans from the nation's townships. During apartheid, draconian laws restricted their movement, making it necessary to jump speeding trains to leave the segregated shanty towns set up by South Africa's white minority government.
The bouncing hop-step of boarding a train, known as s'parapara, is central to pantsula, a dance form that combines quickstepping, duck walks, house beats and slick uniforms. More than just a pastime, this high energy dance-off evolved as a form of political and social self-expression for black township locals over the years.
Pantsula movements emerged in the 1950s as a secret code reflecting shared experiences under apartheid. What to outsiders appeared to be just a dance performance was, in reality, a political gathering, with the s'parapara a protest against barriers to free movement, and whistles a warning of police presence.
Dance converged with a burgeoning fashion culture in townships that prized two-tone leather loafers from Italy and clean-cut suits worn by American jazz musicians on album covers. Using township streets as a catwalk, pantsula troupes would compete, each displaying its own distinct identity outside the harsh realities of manual labor, subjugation and racism.
The subculture continued to morph as the sociopolitical environment in South Africa became more volatile. In the 1980s and 1990s, suits and dress shoes were traded for argyle sweaters and Converse All Stars – an outfit more suitable for escaping police raids or riots. The music began incorporating hip-hop and eventually house music.
Today’s pantsula dancers still sport their Chucks, and have added bucket hats, polo shirts and flood-length pants to their uniforms. They’ve also become township heroes. In communities still grappling with the economic and social trauma of apartheid, pantsula has become much more than just escapism and flashy entertainment.
Many dancers are paid well to perform, allowing pantsula dancers to serve as role models for a new generation of township youth. While drug and alcohol abuse and poverty still run rampant, they represent hope for the future – all while paying homage to generations past.
Scroll through more images from our shoot with the Intellectual Pantsula dancers. The crew also helped curate a playlist of dance beats for LURE on Spotify. Listen below.