A Cultural Exchange at San Francisco Ballet School

By Carrie Gaiser Casey, GBP Board Member


This summer Gugulethu Ballet Project organized something very new for us as an organization. In the past we have brought young men from South Africa to study here in the United States. This year, we brought two young ladies, Linathi and Thimna, ages 13 and 15, respectively, along with Olwethu. a teacher and dancer who runs her own nonprofit  dance school, Igugu-Lethu Arts and Leadership Project in Gugulethu township near Cape Town in South Africa. 

We were incredibly fortunate to be supported by two Bay area dance organizations. San Francisco Ballet School gave Thinma and Linathi scholarships for their summer program, and Olwethu received free classes and mentorship through ODC’s new Thea Anderson Scholarship. And so many other individuals helped out along the way with driving, purchasing dance gear, hosting, and offering free classes and services. Part of what made this summer so incredible was witnessing our welcoming and supportive Bay Area dance community in action! 

On one Saturday in the middle of the month-long visit, San Francisco Ballet school hosted a pizza lunch and Q & A session with Thimna, Linathi, and Kristine Elliott, GBP’s founder. The Robert Dollar Board Room became so full with summer session students that people were sitting on the floor. Kristine introduced the girls and got the conversation going. We found Linathi and Thimna’s hometowns, Gugulethu and Zolani townships in South Africa, on a projected map that SFB Director of Education and Training, Andrea Yanonne, provided. Kristine described our organization and its mission. 

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The girls talked about flying on a plane for the first time and how the food is really different here in the States. Linathi mentioned that it took her a while to find something she really liked to eat. Which is: Trader Joe’s Shepherd’s Pie. Thimna confessed that her favorite food is cake. I can personally attest to how much Thimna likes cake, as I made her cupcakes one night and she ate five of them within minutes, making me feel very proud!

Both girls talked about how the atmosphere at the San Francisco Ballet School is very different from their schools back home. Everyone is very serious here – no one is talking, everyone pays attention to the teacher. Both Thimna and Linathi teach the younger ones at their dance schools back home, and they said that those kids talk way too much!  Linathi offered that the training is not that different from home, but that the SFB school focuses on turnout a lot. Her favorite class is pointe work; Thimna mentions “conditioning” as one of her favorite classes, which makes everyone in the audience groan. Apparently the students dread this class, taught by Ruben Martin, as it involves a serious cardio and strengthening routine. (The school schedule informs students to “bring a towel.”) 

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Students in the audience ask Thimna and Linathi how many hours per week they dance. Thimna offers a healthy double digit number, and there is a murmur of appreciation. Some of the things the girls say are eye opening, such as the fact that sometimes there is not any food for breakfast. And that they don’t feel secure at their schools – Linathi says she can’t go to the bathroom there because bad people hang out in the bathroom. When asked what is different about America, the girls say it is how they can walk around and not have to worry about their safety. 

After the interview, everyone takes the elevators to the fourth floor big studio (the Christensen studio, where the company takes class) for Olwethu’s African dance class. Thimna assists a Bay Area percussionist, Bongo, on the drums. The drums are an important part of the class; Olwethu told me that there has to be a rapport between the drummer and the dancer for the class to work. Thimna played for the class with ease and confidence. She also played the piano at Kristine’s house and started learning the guitar at ours. And both Thimna and Linathi love to sing. Very musical individuals! 

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After a little warm up, Olwethu taught the students several dance phrases. Before the students practiced each phrase she had everyone just moving to the music as they wanted to, mostly gently swaying, getting into the mood. I loved watching Olwethu in these moments because she seemed so connected to the music and to herself. After the students learned the phrases, Olwethu had them combine the phrases into a dance. You could see everyone gaining confidence with the unfamiliar movements, and the atmosphere felt vibrant and upbeat. Some of the students really put all of their energy into the steps! 

In African dance you stay in plié (a squat with the knees bent) for a very long time compared to ballet. I imagine the students were going to be sore at the end of this class, because in ballet you use the plié to propel yourself on to the next step, not so much as a home base where you linger. There is also more syncopation in the footwork in the African movements and sudden jumps that seem to come out of nowhere. Of course, it’s a cliché that African dance is closer to the ground, and ballet is in the air. That generally holds true when you watch it, but really the mechanics of the movements are not all that different. Without a good plié, you can’t do much of anything in either form. 

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Ballet summer programs often have a very serious atmosphere. Here you could see the students letting go, smiling and laughing with the joy of doing something new. Andrea Yanonne leaned over to me and said, why don’t they smile like this in ballet class? But maybe it works the other way, too––maybe someone who studies African dance very seriously would also feel temporarily freer in a ballet class simply because it is different? 

I left the African dance class completely elated. Gugulethu Ballet Project had really fulfilled one of its core missions that day: promoting cultural exchange and understanding. Just as Thimna, Linathi, and Olwethu came here to study different dance forms, we learned so much from what they shared of their music and dance traditions. 

Carie Gaiser Casey received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in Performance Studies with a dissertation on women in early twentieth century American ballet. She teaches in the LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals) program at St. Mary’s College of California, which enables professional dancers to earn their B.A. while pursuing their careers. Since 2012, Carrie has been a guest lecturer for San Francisco Ballet, delivering numerous lectures on ballet history topics and assisting with adult education planning. Her publications include articles in Theatre Journal, Dance Chronicle, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, and the anthology Dance on its Own Terms. She is currently a board member of the Gugulethu Ballet Project, a ballet outreach program in South Africa founded by Kristine Eliot, and has also served on the board of the Museum of Performance and Design from 2011 to 2014 and on the Isadora Duncan Awards Committee from 2004 to 2007. Prior to her academic career, Carrie danced professionally with the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet and was a full scholarship student at the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. She is currently working on an article on choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s Chamber Symphony while maintaining her blog, www.balletgeekout.com.

Video by Kristine Elliott
Photos by Alexander Reneff-Olson