FANA Tshabalala, who refers to himself as shy and very focused, is the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance, announced late last year. Of the award, he says: "I was surprised. I thought they would call me back and say they had made a mistake. Honestly, it was my dream."
He grew up in Zone 16, Sebokeng, where he lived with his mother, father and two older siblings.
"I have been dancing since I was 10 years old. I did Zulu traditional dance. At that time, I didn’t even know that contemporary dance existed."
He describes his father as a gentle person who liked to talk through problems, helping him understand right from wrong.
"My father played an important role in my life. He used to earn little but he managed to keep us happy."
Although his mother didn’t work, she was very involved with the local community, in the women’s society.
Tshabalala was introduced to dance through his father, who used to do isicathimiya (South African a capella and dance). He loved watching them and fell in love with what they were doing.
"I was introduced to community groups in the Vaal and they were doing traditional Zulu dance (indlamu). I used to go every day after school for two hours".
He was keen to learn more about this dance form so he started going to the Jeppe hostel to pursue this.
"They don’t teach you — you learn from watching and you have to be fast. If you didn’t get it right — the leader would whip you if you made mistakes. When I went to high school, I joined a more established community group, called Sonqoba Cultural Group. When I did my matric, I stopped dancing to concentrate on my studies."
Tshabalala did well in his matric and was due to apply to study for an engineering degree. However, because of his passion for dance, he decided to go to Moving into Dance (MID) for an audition in December 2005 (two of the members of Sonqoba had links with Moving into Dance).
This was the first time he had come across contemporary dance: "It was bad. I was very stiff. I wanted to run away! People were stretching, doing the splits and I was wearing jeans. They were all looking very serious."
Although he expected to be eliminated, he got through to the third round.
When he was asked to show what he could do, surrounded by dancers who were able to do moves he hadn’t yet dreamt of, he made a snap decision to perform the Zulu traditional dance, which he knew so well.
"I did my kicks, fell on the floor, jumped and did whatever I needed to do." He was asked to come back in January 2006 for a further audition.
"In December, I made it my business to ask people I knew to teach me what we called dance by white people. I learnt some techniques and tricks. It was very difficult, although it looked simple."
Although Tshabalala had a plan B, which was to study electrical engineering, he was accepted at MID for a year’s internship, which essentially marked the beginning of his professional dance career.
Looking back, he says: "For me, the Zulu dance was good, because that’s who I am and that’s what helped me to understand my body and helped me in terms of my artistic intentions. It also paved the way for me. I used to love the culture. It gave me a strong understanding of where the different dance forms came from and why they were done. It was equivalent to an initiation for me."
At the end of the year at MID, they chose two students to be part of the company, and Tshabalala was one of them. He was there for five years, leaving in August last year.
"(MID) helped me to be where I am today. David April mentored me and taught me a lot. I had to work hard. I didn’t want to go back and start all over again. I had to go forward and push, push, push…"
People whom he looked up to include Greg Maqoma of Vuyani Dance Theatre, Michel Keleminis from France and Akram Khan, who is an English dancer of Bangladeshi descent.
"My vision was to become a choreographer, so that I could express what I wanted to say — to have an ability to change what needs to be changed."
"When I was a student, I choreographed my first solo, called Conversation Between He and He, which was about a conversation between me and my father. I performed it at The Dance Umbrella at Stepping Stones and it was mentioned in the newspaper by Adrienne Sichel as ‘promising’. This unlocked doors. With choreography, I could go deeper in myself and find my own way of moving."
Tshabalala says he found his choreographic voice during his stay in France. When Keleminis was in South Africa, Tshabalala approached him, saying: "How is it that side?"
He was keen to go overseas, having noted how people had grown as a result of that experience. Keleminis spoke to the French Institute, which made it possible for him to go to France, where he performed in Keleminis’s work, L’Amoureuse de Monsieur Muscle.
It was not an easy experience: "Before I went there, I went to Dibuka-Alliance Francaise in Johannesburg for two months to learn French. But I was in Marseille and I didn’t understand anything. It was very difficult for me. Keleminis opened a studio for me, and I used this opportunity to create work."
During this time, Keleminis also created a solo for Tshabalala, called That Side, growing a piece of work out of their original conversation when Tshabalala had asked him what was happening "on that side".
"And I choreographed a solo called Lost and Found, about my experiences there. The solo was well received."
Tshabalala recently joined PJ Sabbagha’s Forgotten Angle Theatre’s Collaborative. When he is on stage, he is not shy, but he says: "The more I perform, the more I get nervous. You can’t get used to the stage, because you never know what will happen."
He is aware that the Standard Bank award comes with huge pressure, but also sees it as the beginning of another journey in his career.
"I believe it will open doors and put me into a more creative state, because the more work I get, the more creative I will have to be, even though it also means more responsibilities for me."
Despite winning a young artist award, at just 25, Tshabalala is thinking in the long term: "Although I have other interests, I want to dance until I am 60 years old. I want to see myself going on stage at the age of 60."