Where Words Take Us – Ballet

Pair of worn Pointe Ballet Slippers
Worn Pointes

Ballet is the word for today’s piece, the last in our series for Women’s Month. According to the Oxford, ballet is ‘an artistic dance form performed to music, using precise and highly formalized set steps and gestures’. 

Classical Ballet

Classical ballet originated in Renaissance Italy, and its current form was established during the 19th century. Typically, the movements are light and graceful and require the use of pointe shoes with reinforced toes. 

Fébé Potgieter, Kitty Phetla, Thato Motaung. Book banner in background.
Launch of Her Story – Daughters of Modjadji
Illustration - Kitty Phetla as the Black Swan
Kitty Phetla as the Black Swan – Pen and charcoal

Traditionally, it was, of course, a western art form for white girls. The ideal ballerina is not too tall, and slight enough for the male dancers to lift them with ease. But a young South African woman from Alexandra in Johannesburg has gone and broke all the rules, and yet found fame and fortune on the great ballet stages of the world. She stands almost two metres tall in her tights with a healthy, strong body, and she’s proudly black South African.

The Black Dying Swan

Her name is Kitty Phetla, and I came across her remarkable story in a children’s book about inspiring South African women, published by Khaloza Books. It is the first in a series of books on female icons from all over Africa.

Kitty was discovered by Martin Schönberg when she was nine, in primary school and doing everything her brothers did, convinced she was a boy. Under Schönberg’s guidance, she became the principal ballerina at his Ballet Theatre Afrikan and, through hard work and discipline, she was able to dance onto the world stage. Kitty was the first black ballerina to perform Anna Pavlova’s famous Dying Swan in Russia, the inner sanctum of the ballet world. And she made the dance truly her own with black tutu, tights and shoes.

Kitty and Ukrainian ballerina Natalia Matsak made history when they danced the Dying Swan together as a duo at the Russian Ballet Stars Gala in South Africa. But of all the historical moments, one of the biggest highlights was when she performed the Dying Swan for Nelson Mandela and the Dutch Royal family in 2002.  She won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for dance in 2019, but Kitty is also a choreographer and ballet teacher. It is important for her to inspire young girls to follow in her footsteps and reach for their dreams. Through Joburg Ballet, she is actively involved in youth programmes in the townships, reaching over 300 children.

I would like to thank Madelene Cronje, Robyn Sassen, Monica Laganparsad and New Frame, for the use of the feature image of Kitty at rehearsal and the use of material from their article, Kitty Phetla: On pointe and in the realm of the ancestors.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


4 Responses

  1. Another revelation.

    And my toes tingled with the memory of (bloodstained) pointe shoes from my ballet days, many moons ago.

  2. Sadly I have never seen her dance. Thanks you for telling her story, Helene. Success, especially against apparent odds, is so cool. And cool links for so much more information.

    1. Thanks, Peter. I thrive on stories against the odds. And I hope people do click through on the links because my pieces are just an introduction to a much wider world. It’s such an exciting journey for me, and I’d like to share it with the readers.

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