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Making a difference through dance

2018 marks 40 years since Moving into Dance (MID) was founded in Sylvia ‘Magogo’ Glasser’s garage as a way to provide dance training to youth in underprivileged communities and equip them with the skills to overcome their socio-economic circumstances. Today, MID is a trailblazing, nationally acclaimed, professional dance company and accredited training organisation that has had a major impact on socio-cultural transformation and the economic empowerment of South African youth. Forty years is an incredible milestone, particularly in the arts sector, and has been achieved through the organisation’s constant striving for excellence, its extraordinarily talented and dedicated dancers, passionate support staff and generous funders such as RMB. Creative Feel spoke to CEO of MID, Nadia Virasamy, and Head of Social Investment at RMB, Yvette Nowell, to find out a bit more.

Moving into Dance MID
Sussera Olyn in The Women Who Fell From the Moon by Khutjo Green, performed at Jomba! 2018 PHOTO Val Adamson

Moving into Dance (MID) is one of the oldest and most respected dance training institutions in South Africa and has served as an incubator for some of the country’s top choreographers and dancers. Internationally renowned and multiple-award-winning practitioners like Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe, Gregory Vuyani Maqoma, Shanell Winlock-Pailman, Thabo Rapoo, Portia Mashigo, Luyanda Sidiya, Sonia Thandazile Radebe, Otto Andile Nhlapo, Sunnyboy Motau, Themba Mbuli and Oscar Buthelezi are just a few of the organisation’s graduates.
     Buthelezi, who is currently a member of MID’s renowned professional dance company, won the prestigious Kurt Jooss Prize in May 2016 in Germany. He broke ground as the first South African to win the award, and as the first choreographer ever to clinch both the high-profile choreographic prize and the Audience Choice Award.
     Maqoma now runs his own dance training organisation and professional dance company and is one of the most in-demand dancers and choreographers worldwide. He still collaborates with his childhood friend, Mantsoe, who served as artistic director of MID from 1997 to 2001 before founding his own company. Mantsoe now lives in France and regularly performs to sold-out venues across the globe.
     Excellence has been integral to MID’s ethos since its establishment 40 years ago. Founder Sylvia ‘Magogo’ Glasser has herself received numerous awards for her choreography as well as her contributions to democracy and social change. She was knighted in 2014 by King Wilhelm-Alexander of the Royal Netherlands in the Order of Oranje-Nassau, was awarded The Order of Ikhamanga: Silver from the South African Presidency in 2016 for her excellence in the field of dance, and won an Arts & Culture Trust Lifetime Achievement Award.

Moving into Dance MID
From left Sunnyboy Motau, Otsile Masemola and Oscar Buthelezi in Stone Cast Ritual choreographed by Sylvia Glasser, Dance Umbrella Festival photo John Hogg

     While Glasser is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the organisation, she has instilled a legacy that will see the organisation she so passionately built continue on the same upward trajectory for the next 40 years – and beyond. Nadia Virasamy was hired by Glasser as director of education, even though she had never worked for an NPO and had little working knowledge of the arts sector. ‘I come from a sociology and industrial management background,’ says Virasamy, ‘but I think Sylvia saw something in me and took it upon herself to groom me and teach me how to write funding proposals, to network and to create reports. I learnt a lot from her. Susan Graham, who was the manager at the time, was also quite hands-on in the training.’ Glasser’s instincts were, of course, right – Virasamy has been recognised numerous times for her work as CEO of MID, including being a top three finalist in the Business Women’s Association’s Regional Awards.
     Virasamy adds: ‘The more I look at this organisation, the more I see that its sustainability (in terms of how long it has been in existence) has a lot to do with the organisational culture and the kind of people who are groomed through it. There’s always been that trajectory of passing your knowledge on to the younger generation.’
     Through their education programme, MID has long been at the forefront of training in Contemporary African Dance and has been the core feeder of talent to the broader industry. The SAQA-accredited education and skills development programme consists of three years of theoretical and practical training on a developmental basis. For the first year, no more than 22 students are selected after a rigorous audition process that looks for both talent and passion. Between five and ten students are then selected to continue on to the second year, and only three to five are retained for the third year. One or two graduates are then offered employment as part of the professional dance company.

Moving into Dance MID
Moving into Dance female dancers in We Are Still Marching by Sunnyboy Motau PHOTO Herman Verwey

     The skills training that students receive over the course of the three years goes back to the original founding objectives of MID – to train youth from disadvantaged communities and equip them with skills that can be used to overcome their socio-economic circumstances. This is where MID’s strength lies. Trainees are taught performance, choreography, how to teach dance, and administrative/project management skills.
     ‘We have found a balance where we manage to inculcate all those skills in them so they’re not necessarily limited to one particular aspect,’ says Virasamy. ‘We constantly provide them with opportunities to explore those assets instead of just honing in on one particular skill set.
     ‘We teach them administrative skills because we understand, especially at a first-year level, that not everybody is going to be a great teacher, a great choreographer, or a great dancer, but they all want to be part of this industry. So we try to find a niche for them in the industry where they can do something that they love even if they are not directly involved in performance.’
     Virasamy adds that ‘Administration is not just sitting them down and teaching them how to write a business letter. It is about sending them out into different communities, into different projects, and giving them the opportunity to manage and run a project on their own.’
     Connections, a project that took place earlier this year, involved sending trainees and some of the professional dancers into different communities in three different provinces. They were tasked with workshopping, choreographing and staging a production in that particular province and then had to bring their entire group back to Johannesburg to stage a joint production. Each team was given a budget to work within, had to do their own administration and marketing, and was required to write up a report on the project.

Moving into Dance MID
Bongani Hloma, a partipant in MID’s Connections Provincial Project PHOTO Mark Straw

     This educational programme is made possible through investment (which extends beyond the financial) from RMB. This long-standing relationship has existed for well over a decade now. Since the days of Glasser’s leadership and artistic direction, when there was a Mophatong at the end of Moving Into Dance (MID); since the days when Margie Keeton headed up Tshikululu Social Investments – RMB has supported this Afro-fusion dance company and creative arts training organisation in various ways, aligned to the ever-maturing social investment strategy of the FirstRand Foundation.
     According to Yvette Nowell, head of Social Investment at RMB, ‘This is aligned to our strategy to support relevant best practice organisations that provide tertiary-level students with access to quality training in the performing arts disciplines of music, dance, drama and visual arts, to achieve success and earn a living within the creative sector.’
     In 2016, MID piloted the Enable Through Dance project, prompted by the RMB Fund drive for inclusion and the mainstreaming of disabilities across its social investment relationships. The successful pilot was conducted under the leadership of MID Artistic Director Mark Hawkins in partnership with Gladys Agulhas. The primary objective of this programme is to equip dance facilitators with the understanding and methods of inclusive dance teaching and choreography.
     Including disability in MID’s training programme is something that Virasamy and Hawkins had been discussing for a while, but received the impetus to put their ideas into action following a RMB workshop. Agulhas, who had previously run her own dance company for people living with disabilities, was called upon to train MID’s second and third years to work with youth with disabilities.
     MID then extended their outreach programme, through which they were already working with schools and providing dance classes as part of each school’s curriculum, to focus on schools for youth living with disabilities, such as the Johannesburg Hospital School of Autism, the Winnie Madikizela Mandela School, Hope School, Don Mattera School and Philile Foundation Pre-School.

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Eugene Mashiane and Teboho Letele in Passage of Rites choreographed by Sylvia Glasser and performed at MID’s 40th anniversary. PHOTO Herman Verwey

     ‘When we started the first year of training, we had twelve second years doing training with Gladys, but only six of them got through that training,’ says Virasamy. ‘The first time we put them into a classroom with youth living with disabilities, six of them just broke down and had to walk out. It’s emotionally taxing, it really is intense, but it’s been a complete mind shift for the organisation.
     ‘When we had our first performance at the end of that first year, Yvette Nowell came to watch and was seated a row in front of me. Half-way through, she looked at me with tears streaming down her face and said, “My God, this is beautiful.” Everybody in the audience cried – not because we felt sorry for anyone, but because the need for projects like this was so glaringly evident,’ says Virasamy.
     The project is an ongoing learning experience. ‘Last year, we didn’t take the children from the Autism School into the theatre to perform, but opted to film their performance and showcase it at the production. The school brought 70 of the learners to the live show – kids who had never been to a theatre before, because the teachers weren’t sure how they were going to respond. These kids were blown away. They actually came to Mark at the end of the production and said, “next year, we are not on a video, we are up on stage.” So this year, we’ve got them to come into the theatre a few times, just to get them familiar with it, so it’s not new when they get onto the stage,’ she says.

Moving into Dance MID
Sylvia Glasser and Nadia Virasamy at MID’s 40th anniversary celebration PHOTO Herman Verwey

     ‘Over the past two years, we have taken in learners from the Enable project into our first-year programme, and two of them are currently in their second year at the moment.’ Virasamy adds: ‘And RMB has been kind enough to sponsor a stairlift for us, so now we can actually get wheelchairs upstairs – we previously had to use the little studio downstairs, but there just wasn’t enough space.’
     Enable Through Dance earned RMB and MID the 2018 BASA Award in the Increasing Access to the Arts category, an acknowledgement not just of the investment that RMB are placing in the arts sector, but of their passionate belief in the sector and its ability to impact real socio-cultural transformation.
     ‘It’s just one of those projects that we are very proud of and, to be honest, in terms of our relationship with RMB, I think one of the things I value most is the support structure,’ says Virasamy. ‘They give you funding, but they also provide you with real support, invite you to workshops or to network and engage, and really open up different opportunities for you. I think that’s where the connection is, that’s where those relationships are built, that’s where partnerships and collaborations happen. You get to know who they are funding, what their area of interest is, and the fact that they are actually invested in you succeeding as an organisation. It’s not about ticking boxes, it’s a lot more supportive than that and I think that’s one of those incredible things. I’ve never had that from any other funder,’ she concludes.
     Nowell says, ‘In short, MID use the tool of dance to empower young people with formalised training and skills that make them employable – in and beyond the arts sector. RMB are proud to be part of MID’s 40-year journey of unlocking talent and social transformation through the creative arts.’

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