CNN Photos

Ballet: ‘A symbol of new South Africa’

The young man shifted his feet and raised his arms to better show off his ballet training.

It’s a position he’d take over and over in dance class, but not here. Never here.

When photographer Frank Trimbos asked the South African dancer to pose outside his home in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, the dancer hesitated, just as so many others had. He refused to put on his ballet slippers, preferring to pose in his socks, Trimbos said.

The photographer could understand why. These streets and alleys were no place for a young man to reveal himself.

“Outside, it’s a hard world for them,” Trimbos said of the Johannesburg ballet students he photographed, especially the boys. “It’s a man’s world and in the townships, at that age — 16, 17 years old — you must compete against each other. Classical ballet, it’s so far from their home.”

Trimbos, a native of Holland, had worked before in the Johannesburg townships — vast, impoverished areas on the outskirts of the city, “a maze of little shacks,” Trimbos said.

Often, his images reflected poverty and struggle. He was surprised to learn that hundreds of young people from these same areas were crowding into community centers every day to study classical ballet.

He wanted to show the contrast between the places where they lived and the elegance of the art they studied.

“If you’re in a township, you’re not surprised by (anything). It’s really a jungle sometimes,” said Trimbos, who spent time with dancers in Soweto and Alexandra. “What I was surprised about was, I think, that art, creativity. That’s certainly going on there.

“It’s very new for those youngsters, but there’s a lot of talent there.”

In class, they’re serious students of ballet. The youngest children practice just a couple times per week; some of them have never seen ballet performed. Older students might work out every day, hoping for a chance to attend the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg, or to perform with the Joburg Ballet, which leads the free ballet programs in the townships.

Despite the students’ commitment and skill, Trimbos said, they won’t always admit to their passion for ballet. Their friends and family didn’t always know they studied dance. In townships, Trimbos was far more likely to see young people just hanging around or playing soccer with a ball or a tin can.

Many students practice in whatever clothes are available — ripped tights, tight shoes, ill-fitting leotards. Still, they continue to come.

“Focusing on ballet, that was not possible (before), nothing to think of in the township,” Trimbos said. “They have big dreams. Those things are now open for them.”

Who knows, he said, how long the ballet program will last. There are many well-meaning initiatives in the townships, but they often peter out after a few months, Trimbos said.

But if the ballet program fades away, it won’t be for lack of participation, he said.

“The youngsters, they want to do it,” Trimbos said. “It’s a symbol of new South Africa, really. It’s progress, big progress.”

- Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN