Perspectives: I’m a female pantsula dancer
SOUTH AFRICAN pantsula dancer Leballo “Lee” Lenela, 24, PURSUES her passion in a male-dominated SCENE.
Before I could even dance pantsula, it was already a part of my life.
I was born and bred in Soweto, South Africa’s largest township in Johannesburg, just after apartheid, so it was normal to want to do pantsula. It started during apartheid as a way for our black parents to try and communicate among themselves without the white people or police noticing.
Pantsula were the cool guys – everyone wanted to be like them or be around them. It had this respect, and I was so happy that I could celebrate that dance.
It was mostly guys dancing pantsula, but I've always been around boys, and I've always played with the boys. So even when I saw the pantsula guys, I knew it could be me. My neighbor started teaching me when I was in the seventh grade, and I was grasping everything so quickly and so easily. It was as if I was born to do this.
But it wasn't always easy, especially with my family.
For a while, it was like a secret. We were struggling financially, and I wasn't an only child. Knowing what my mom would be like, I couldn't just go to her and be like, "Mom, I'm dancing, I need 200 rand to buy Dickies." I was still trying to grasp some motivation, some strength, about how to tell her.
But it didn't take that long for her to catch on. Mothers will be mothers, and she quickly saw that I had a different routine. After school, I'd do my homework, then I'd take a small bag and leave. I had to say that pantsula was just a hobby so she didn't give me all the flack about not being able to afford extramural activities.
It ended up not being a problem while I was still at school. She had hopes that eventually I would lose interest and I would go to school to become a metallurgical engineer.
But things got hectic after high school. I was supposed to study at Wits University but I couldn't get financial assistance in time. So while I was sitting at home waiting for the next year to apply, I danced.
I realized during that time that I could actually do this for a living. It was hard starting out. We were really trying to make it work and we were hustling so hard. But I was at peace knowing that I was doing what I loved.
But for my mother, it was like I didn't put enough effort into going to school because I just wanted to dance. Ladies are not supported in following their passion in South Africa, especially if it's in the arts. They're expected to become teachers, nurses, doctors or engineers. We can't go for dancing, unlike the boys, who can do whatever they want.
And for my mom, I couldn't be dancing.
On June 30, 2014 – I still remember the day – my mom came unannounced to my sister's in Soweto where I was staying at the time. She said she was going to take me to Free State where my parents were staying.
What would I have done with my life there? I couldn't just up and leave dancing – I could feel that this was my calling.
“It was hard starting out ... we were hustling so hard. But I was at peace knowing that I was doing what I loved.”
"Tomorrow we're leaving," she said. "You better start packing your bags. If you don't leave with me tomorrow, I don't want to see you anymore. You're no longer my child."
That hurt me. But I said okay and I left. It was the hardest decision I've ever had to make, having to choose between my mother and my passion.
When we're dancing as a crew, it's still all boys. They don't understand how the female body is built. We have to be femme, but nothing can shake. But I've got boobs – they're going to shake!
And a lot of people think I'm a lesbian or a tomboy. My image isn't beautiful enough for them. But I'm okay with that. This is me, and this is how I want to look. I won't change my looks, and I don't like to pretend to be something that I'm not.
It motivates me even more, and sometimes being the only girl in the group really works for me. I'm the only one who's more powerful and more brave to say that if boys can do it, I can do it better.
My mom eventually came around. She understands more about the dance, how it came about and the role it plays in our society. She used to think one girl dancing with five boys was so wrong in so many ways. Now she comes to my shows and says, "girl, you rocked them!"
For me, pantsula is very personal. It helped me in my most desperate moments. It's a lifestyle, it's appreciating our history, and it's trying to build a better future for our people.
But pantsula doesn't have to be male-dominated. It's a culture that can have an equal number of females.
It's why I'm trying to build a pantsula group that's 100 percent girls. I'm far from achieving that because we still have girls whose minds haven't changed. They think pantsula is for guys only.
But ladies: I'm like you. And if I can do it, you can do it.
Lee and her crew, Intellectual Pantsula, helped curate a playlist of dance songs with LURE on Spotify. Take a listen below.