Local dance star Paul Modjadji guides youth to make the right moves
When choreographer Paul Modjadji arrives for our appointment at a busy restaurant in bustling Rosebank in Johannesburg eyes turn his way and there are smiles and nods of acknowledgement.
This is rare recognition for a dancer, especially in SA where public admiration is reserved for soapie stars and footballers.
But Modjadji is not just another dancer, his achievements in SA, and increasingly in the rest of Africa and abroad, are legendary. The art of dance that is making him a global icon from SA is mainly self-taught — or at least was so at the beginning.
"Like other kids in Hammanskraal [outside Pretoria], I first learned how to dance in the streets because we were having fun. I never in my wildest dreams ever thought for one moment, that this was going to be my career.
"I have polished my dance talent by attending Tshwane University of Technology as well as furthering my studies in Denmark. But all this was a build-up on what I already had, having first learned to arrange dance movements and dance skills on the streets of Hammanskraal," he says.
He has built a brand and career as a dancer and choreographer trying to change the African narrative that the youth do not know what they want in life, or are waiting for handouts from governments.
Modjadji incorporates entrepreneurship lessons and how to look for business opportunities in the arts sector into the dance workshops that he holds for youths. There is an abundance of opportunities.
In 2011, he won the World Dance Masters championships in Croatia, where 1,000 dancers took to the floor to impress the judges. He was the first African dancer to reach the finals and bring a statuette home.
Since then, doors have opened. Modjadji has been involved in major productions, such as choreographing the South African Music Awards and the Namibian Music Awards.
He has also won several awards in SA and was appointed by the organisers of the World Dance Masters to look for talent in Africa. Those he selects will have a chance to compete in Croatia in 2017.
"Winning at this level of the competition is not child’s play because out of the 1,000 dancers, the judges will select one winner per category and believe you me, it is tough there," he says.
For the past 11 months, Modjadji has been traversing the continent to select six young dancers for the finals of the World Dance Masters championships for 2018 and is holding dance and art entrepreneurship workshops in 10 countries including Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Senegal.
He has just returned from Botswana, where he held workshops at public schools and did philanthropic work at an orphanage.
These tours, sponsored by nongovernmental organisation Breaking Borders Africa Initiative, will culminate in the publication of a book of business ideas from the youth, a 13-part TV series and a one-hour documentary.
Another outcome of the tour is a youth summit of people from 15 countries in Africa who will converge in Johannesburg to talk about business opportunities and innovation on the continent.
The first Breaking Down Borders Africa Youth Summit took place in Gauteng in May and attracted 60 young African leaders from 15 countries.
"I travel with a team of five people, including a tour co-ordinator and the film crew who document everything that we do in each country," Modjadji says.
"We visit orphanages housing vulnerable kids, such as those whose parents died of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and help in whatever way we can to alleviate their plight. We also promote tourism to the countries we visit.
"And, of course, I also scout for talent that I recommend to be entered into the finals of the World Dance Masters Championships in Croatia for which I am also a judge."
So far, he has picked six dancers from Kenya, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Senegal and Zimbabwe. He deliberately did not select any South Africans.
"The thing is South Africans often think that there is not much talent in the rest of the continent because of fewer resources these countries have compared to ours," he says.
"That is an incorrect assumption. Sure, SA has talent in abundance, but so does the rest of the continent. All they need is an opportunity to shine. We must remember we are part of the continent and our fate is pretty much tied to that of the continent. That is why we all need to fight negative things such as xenophobia."
Modjadji says his continental tour was trouble-free, except for problems with visas that sadly seem to define the travel experience in Africa.
"Something must be done about this problem by the political authorities. Getting a visa to travel in Africa, as an African, is sometimes more difficult to do than travelling to Europe," he says. "Can you imagine how much more difficult it is for people to get a business visa? Getting a tourist visa is hard enough.
"This hampers development on the continent, as investors would consider investing elsewhere first before considering us."