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Ballet and the alluring power of the smile

By Yan Dongjie | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2017-08-20 15:43

Young dancers from around the world get to show off their moves - and learn more about people from different countries

When two South African teenage girls came to China, they expected to learn about ballet and perhaps a little about culture. But for them, one lesson came out of the blue: It was about the power of silence and a smile.

For Nehanda Peguillan, 16, and Michaela Louw, 15, it was their first time in China. They were to spend most of two weeks in and around the National Centre for the Performing Arts. They were in Beijing with dozens of other young ballet dancers from all over the world for the Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition.

"It's one of the top international ballet competitions," says Janine Louw, Michaela's mother. "Although it's such a long way to China, especially from South Africa, we decided to let them take the audition and come." One of the "we" was Nehanda's father, Aymeric Peguillan, who also made the trip to Beijing.

 Ballet and the alluring power of the smile

Young ballet dancers from around the world in Beijing practice for the Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition. Photos by Yan Dongjie / China Daily

The competition, run under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and the Beijing municipal government, is divided into classical ballet and choreography sections and open to contestants ages 14 to 22. It was held at the performing arts center in Beijing from Aug 4 to 11.

The aim was to discover and encourage promising dancers and choreographers.

The event was also seen as a way of increasing collaboration in ballet and choreography between China and the world.

Apart from competitions, the trip included training for those competing. The girls said they had learned a lot not only from what they were taught but also through meeting other girls.

"The teachers corrected us with certain details we had never paid attention to before," Michaela Louw says, an example being the direction in which their palms should be facing.

The girls say that what they treasured most on their trip to Beijing was seeing many different dance techniques from around the globe and the friendships they forged.

"Just like dancing, smiling is a common language," Nehanda says.

Just as a mime artist has to communicate in silence, the two girls say they let their smiles do the talking for them during their first few days in Beijing. Encountering others involved in the competition in hallways, bonds were formed instantly without words being exchanged.

However, by the end of their stay, the pair had become accustomed to their surroundings and had gotten to know a few people, and they had found their full voice. On their last night in Beijing, they stayed up almost all night, chattering away and laughing with two Japanese girls who were also in the competition.

"They are so polite," Michaela says, making eye contact with Nehanda before both burst into laughter.

It was an exhilarating experience meeting and befriending Asians and getting to know something about their culture, they say.

As South Africa's only representatives in this year's competition, Nehanda and Michaela had a certain degree of national pride resting on their young shoulders. However, when they were eventually eliminated before the finals, they took it in stride like seasoned professionals.

"We did our best and we are doing what we love the most," Nehanda says.

It was extremely competitive, she says, and one of the interesting aspects was that dancers from different parts of the world had their own ways of dancing.

In any case, passing auditions and being given the chance to compete in Beijing had confirmed that they have talent, she says.

Nehanda, who was born in Johannesburg, started learning ballet about four years ago, when she was 12. Her talent came to the attention of the organizers of the South African International Ballet Competition in Cape town, and last October she was given the chance to study at the Zurich Ballet Academy for a week.

That is quite something for someone for whom ballet initially had absolutely no attraction.

"When I first started, I didn't like it," says Nehanda, whose mother is a dancer. "Ballet wasn't my first choice of dance. But the more I put into it, the more I get out of it. It pays back. Now I love it. I would dance every minute when I'm awake if I could."

Ballet is not particularly popular in South Africa, and it can be expensive, says Nehanda's father, a jazz musician. He drives about 40 kilometers taking Nehanda to ballet school, where she practices two to three hours a day.

"I pay on average nearly $300 a month for her ballet, which is quite high."

However, as long as she wants to keep dancing, he is ready to give her his full backing, he says.

Nehanda, in 10th grade, now faces a tough choice about her future. She could become a professional ballet dancer or pursue another dream of becoming a lawyer, for which she would need to study at university.

"It's really good that Chinese can go to ballet schools and have both ballet training and normal school courses," says Nehanda. "In South Africa we have to do ballet in classes after school."

Apart from keenly following the ballet competition in Beijing, Peguillan had another artistic pursuit in mind while he was in the city - to see if there were possibilities for South African jazz bands in China. When he was in Beijing, he had talks with Fisher Li, owner of Beijing's first jazz bar, East Coast Jazz.

Peguillan says one pleasant surprise for him in Beijing was the live music scene. When he saw people around the National Center for the Performing Arts, he was impressed by their excitement when they watched and talked about music.

"I like the atmosphere and I want to get involved," he says

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of China and South Africa establishing diplomatic relations, and Peguillan says that offers the perfect opportunity to bring jazz bands to Beijing.

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