On the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa lies the township of Kyahalitscha, a teeming mass of makeshift dwellings occupied by one of the poorest black populations in the country. In the midst of the rampant poverty that surrounds them, a handful of teenagers are pinning their hopes for a better future on an unlikely extracurricular program called Dance for All. Located in a Cape Town, a bus ride away from Kyahalitscha, Dance for All was founded in 1991 by a white ballet dancer and teacher named Philip Boyd, who wanted to bring change to the segregated ballet culture in the country, an outgrowth of the then-apartheid government. Today, Boyd and his staff teach some 1,000 girls and boys from disadvantaged backgrounds the fine art of dance: classical, modern and traditional.
Once a year, Dance for All holds auditions for dancers who display unusual talent and promise. Based on their performances, a few will be offered the chance to join the professional arm of the organization, the Youth Company. "It's a way out, a chance in life," notes Boyd. "It's a lifeline for a better future." Ghetto Ballet follows the progress of several Dance for All students - at home, at the studio, at leisure and in performance - as they set their sights on an annual audition that could lead them out of the ghetto, and into a high-profile career as a professional dancer. Among those we meet over the course of six months:
Simbakle is a 16-year-old with a vivacious spirit and an all-consuming dream to be "the first black ballerina" from her neighborhood. Simbakle lives with her mother in a small, two-room structure adjoined to a similar home where her aunt's and uncle's families live. Though her mother is initially skeptical about Simbakle's prospects, arguing that her weight is an issue, she ends up encouraging Simbakle in her dream.
Vuyelwa is Simbakle's best friend, and one of the most gifted dancers in the program. Exuding a rare confidence in her talents and potential, Vuyelwa (her name means "happy") admits that ballet "is not a thing that I'm interested to do most. I want to become a star...a well-known celebrity."
Tusili is a talented male dancer who says that ballet music "is now in my blood," and who has a penchant for playing loud classical music at home. Ultimately, Tusili never has the opportunity to audition for Boyd's Youth Company; after seeing him perform with Dance for All, the Cape Town Ballet offers him a position as company dancer.
Fiona is an admitted free spirit who gravitated to dance as an escape from school boredom and the neighborhood "gangster" element. Fiona talks to her dancing friends about the pervasiveness of drugs in the area, and how many youths beg for money to use for drugs. Later, we learn that Fiona has been taken off the program due to "naughty" behavior. As she explains, cryptically, "I misbehaved. I didn't listen to the rules that I was supposed to listen to. I was a child. I didn't know that there was going to be consequences behind it." Says her mother, "We are not happy at all."
As the audition approaches, the Fiona-less troupe performs an engaging routine at the Montagu Auditorium, and Simbakle, who's been having problems controlling her weight, goes on a diet, asking her mother to put her food in a tiny bowl to control her portions. Tusili, now a professional, is asked which of Boyd's dancers he thinks is best, and without hesitation he says Vuyelwa. On audition day, the dancers take turns performing solo dance routines in front of Boyd and his associate, Miss Mann. The next morning, the two call each of the dancers into a conference room to deliver their verdict. As we see, some dreams will come true. Others will be shattered, or at least deferred until next year.
Credits: Director: Jeremy Simmons; Produced by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey; Co-Producer: Mona Card; Editor: Mike Rysavy; Composer: David Benjamin Steinberg; Cinematographer: Jeremy Simmons; Executive Producers: Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey.