Township Kids Transformed by Ballroom Dancing in South Africa

By Trish Beaver

On a Wednesday and Friday afternoon in the Howick old Agricultural Hall, you may find yourself captivated if you look inside. You will see dance teacher Phillip Gumede (65) guiding his dance students through their paces writes Trish Beaver.

To the elegant strains of the waltz or the more upbeat funky samba, the children practice their steps. Ballroom dancing lessons are not unique, but this class at the Spirit of the Dance studio in Howick is exceptional for many reasons. Many of the children who come to Gumede’s lessons come from the informal settlement of Shiya Bazali.


Known by locals as “Shiya” it is a ramshackle and poor settlement perched alongside the uMngeni River where children and their parents battle daily to survive. Many of the residents came years ago to the area as migrant workers and have settled there in shacks.

You may see the women on occasion washing their clothes at the top of the Howick Falls – using the flow of the river to their advantage. Some Howick folk are angered by the sight as they say the washing detergent pollutes the river and is an eyesore for the tourists who come to admire the famous Howick Falls.

But for residents living in these squalid conditions, laundromats and washing machines are definitely out of reach.

For the children who come to the ballroom dance lessons the hours they spend learning to glide to the waltz or moving to the cha-cha, is an escape from their daily grind of homework by candlelight and fetching water.

Gumede himself is a born and bred Howick resident who grew up in the KwaMevane township and his own journey to happiness was through ballroom dancing. He remembers as a young teenager he was entrusted to carry the treasured gramophone that played the dance records.

He would accompany his older brothers who were on their way to the local school hall to dance. He remembers those days well and one of his most treasured possessions is a Glen Miller record – “In the Mood” – from those times.

He loved the music and the freedom the dance allowed and he soon began to learn the jive and foxtrot. In those days they got dance lessons from Mr Mtshali, who came all the way from Estcourt to give them formal instruction. Gumede took to dancing like a duck to water.

But success as a dancer was not to be for him. Troubles struck the family when his older brother Joe Boy Gumede chose to fight against the Apartheid government and slipped out of the country into exile. The rest of the family who stayed behind in KwaMevane were bullied and harassed by the security police who wanted to find him.

Although conditions at home were tough Gumede had hoped that if he managed to get a good matric he would be able to get sponsorship to study dancing overseas. But he believes his matric papers were tampered with by Apartheid agents and he did not get a university pass.

Gumede still pursued his love of dance as a hobby and even competed in the national championships which were segregated into whites only and blacks only. But it was not an income generator, so he was forced to get work at the local SAMCOL rubber factory to survive. He danced in his spare time.

Gumede met his wife Khombisile at a dance championship in Port Elizabeth and she relocated to Howick where they settled.  Desperate to improve his income he found employment in the Bantu Affairs department which controlled the access of blacks into the towns.

“It was very ironic that my brother was a freedom fighter and I was actually doing one of the very things I hated in order to survive. It took its toll on me and I began drinking heavily.”

When his wife died of cancer in her thirties, Gumede decided to quit drinking as he had children to feed and raise alone. He decided to commit to his role as a dance teacher and inspire the local youths to learn dancing.

He has been teaching ballroom dancing for over thirty years and his gentle tutorage has gained him much admiration. His children have done ballroom dancing and his daughter Sbahle also became a ballroom champion.

Today he runs a ballroom studio in Mpophomeni and he also regularly teaches the children at Howick Prep School in preparation for their Grade 6 Ball.  For a while, he taught dancing in the St Luke’s Church hall before they moved to the new Spirit of the Dance studio.

Recently he has been asked to teach dance to children who attend Midlands rural schools  – as part of the Midlands Meander Education Project. The project believes that Gumede will be able to add value to the children in terms of culture and also to uplift them.

But the children who currently most benefit from his dance lessons and his dedication are those from Shiya Bazali who come to the lessons at Spirit of the Dance. The fees are nominal and if a family cannot pay he makes arrangements to get sponsorship for them.

The children walk to their dance lessons after school. They arrive in their clothes and are often barefoot. Their feet are dusty from the road. Their clothes sometimes too big or too small, handed down from an older sibling. But in the grand shiny hall with its chandeliers and polished floors, they become transformed when the music starts.

Pairing up they wait, listen and then go through their paces. Suddenly they are elegant, proud and accomplished. Nimble toed and graceful they flit across the floor as if they are skating, swirling and dipping.

Carol Hunter who has helped Gumede with the operational side of the studio says it is a worthy cause and she herself was a ballroom dancer in her younger days. Now she teaches professional Zumba lessons at the studio. She is inspired by Gumede’s dedication and also she has seen first hand how these dance lessons add so much value to the children’s lives.

She said: “In the beginning, they are so shy and they can barely lift their eyes from the floor and in a few months, you can see they have found inner confidence and it’s almost like watching them come alive.

“Once we went to see where these children live, and it is so remarkable. The contrast between their lives and the perceived grandeur of ballroom dancing is stark. It is amazing that when they are dressed up and competing in a dance competition you would never know what humble backgrounds they come from.”

Hunter is always trying to find sponsors for some of the students’ fees and she is always trying to raise funds for expenses that arise for competitions and travel. Ballroom dancing is an expensive sport, especially when they get to the senior levels they require elaborate dresses and suits. They have been lucky to source second-hand shoes for some of the children.

Hunter who is originally from Germany has a few friends who send her small donations to keep up with expenses but she says they really need a local sponsor to help them get the children to the next level.

Gumede says the dancing gives the children confidence, discipline and something to strive for. “I also teach them that when you dance with a partner there is no funny business. You must respect them and learn to understand them so you move together with the music.”

Gumede says that teenagers filled with hormones are often distracted by issues of sex, but he is very strict about the rules and he says that he believes that through dancing the couples learn to respect themselves and their partners.

“It is most important for them to start with the waltz – which they often find boring. But it is all about learning to listen to music and then to understand the rhythm. Once they have started to hear the music then they are keen to learn the more active Latin-American dances like the jive and samba.”

The children take turns to play DJ and change the music on Gumede’s portable stereo speaker. Each age group gets a chance to practice and before competitions, they come on extra afternoons to get in extra practice.

While not all of these children will get a chance to become ballroom champions, they are learning much more than simple dance steps. They are realising that when you pursue a passion with dedication, it has many advantages which spill into other areas of life.

Gumede recalls: “When I was young, my mother was very worried about the time I was spending on dancing. She said that if my marks dropped she would make me stop. So I worked very hard to make sure I was in the top group of students.”

Next year they are planning to stage a show, once a year, for the public to see what they have achieved and Gumede hopes this will become an income generator for the studio. It will also give these humble children some well-deserved recognition for their hard work.

  • If you are interested in making a contribution or donation to the Spirit of the Dance Studio,  you can contact Phillip Gumede on  082 511 8135 or Carol Hunter on 078 462 0266.

Watch Video: Spirit of the Dance