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April 2014

Holiday Classes
Classes and rehearsals continued during the school holidays as the performance team had to be ready for our performance with the Cape Philharmonic at Artscape.  These were primarily for the performance team although all were welcome and the studio quickly filled up.

TDA Eisteddfod Repertoire Recording
Both Leanne and Andrew were asked to choreograph new ‘set solos’ for the 2014 TDA Eisteddfod being held in August.  Andrew choreographed a classical ballet solo and Leanne a Demi Character.  They were then filmed at Reddam School on 12th April along with all the other teachers’ new solos. The new DVD for all Eisteddfod participants can be purchased soon.

Cape Philharmonic Orchestra Collaborative Performance
Zama’s performance team and a handful of Zama student-helpers spent the day at Artscape where they performed with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO).  Zama had been invited to perform The Swan from the Carnival of Animals by Laurika Steenkamp, the CPO’s Outreach and Education Manager when we shared a table with her at the Cultural Affairs Awards earlier this year. The helpers help set up a Zama information board in the foyer and later handed out Zama flyers to the audience as they arrived.

Zama in Seapoint
Between performances with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra.
Zama students go for a walk along the Sea Point promenade.

Adele Blank’s Rehearsals Start
We feel extremely privileged to have the South African doyen of contemporary dance Adele Blank in the Zama studio for next few months. ‘Uvuyo’ will be performed by the Zama students as a curtain raiser at all Cape Town City Ballet performances during their Ballet Beautiful season in July at Artscape. Uvuyo, originally called Collaboration was created for the Free Flight Dance Company and performed at the Wits Theatre in Johannesburg. The first movement renamed Uvuyo (‘Celebrate’ in Xhosa) has been reworked for the students of the Zama Dance School in Gugulethu as part of the school’s 25th anniversary celebrations.

Adele Blank
Adele Blank is not only known for her cutting edge work, but also for her tireless dedication to the development of South African artistes who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to train formally in dance. Today hundreds of dancers work professionally locally and abroad as a result of Adele’s commitment, encouragement and love of dance.

Waterfront Theatre School Choreographic Competition
It was an honour to be invited back to the Waterfront Theatre School (WTS) this year to judge their choreographic completion. Along with fellow judges, Didi Moses and Fran Hill we were treated to two full programmes of dance as well as an awards evening.  I was extremely proud to see Zama Dance School graduate Sonia Yabo, now a second year student at WTS dance beautifully in two of the pieces.

March 2014

The British Embassy
Zama Dance School performed for the British High Commissioner, Judith Macgregor at a reception organised by the Cape Town City Ballet’s Keith Mackintosh.

This prestigious occasion held in the grounds of the British High Commissioner’s residence in Bishopscourt was in honour of guest stars, Federico Bonelli and Hikaru Kobayashi from the Royal Ballet, London and in support of the Cape Town City Ballet’s 80th anniversary year. Federico Bonelli and Hikaru Kobayashi from the Royal Ballet will dance the lead roles in the company’s forthcoming season of Swan Lake at Artscape Opera House in April. In attendance was the Cape Town City Ballet’s Patron, recently returned SA Ambassador to Bulgaria, Sheila Camerer as well as Zama Dance School’s Chairman Mr Raymond Ackerman and his wife Wendy Ackerman.

British High Commissioners residence
Before the performance at the British High Commissioner’s residence.
Dancers from the Cape Town City Ballet and Zama Dance School students
Lwazi Saphula, Thimna Sitokisi and Chuma Nkumanda.

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Mr Ackerman’s Birthday Party
Zama was thrilled to be invited as the guest performers for Raymond Ackerman’s birthday celebrations held at Pick n Pay headquarters in Kenilworth on the 10th March. The surprise performance was organised by his daughter Suzanne Ackerman and was attended by 1000 Pick n Pay employees as well as new British CEO to Pick n Pay Richard Brasher. Leanne Voysey’s popular Friends and Other People was received with great enthusiasm by the crowd.

Happy birthday Mr Ackerman
Mr Ackerman is wished a happy birthday by Zama dancers on the
10th of March at Pick n Pay headquarters Kenilworth. Looking on is
British CEO to Pick n Pay Richard Brasher.

Open Day at the Cape Town City Ballet
The Cape Town City Ballet’s annual Open Day took place on Saturday 29 March from 10 - 3pm at the studios of the UCT School of Dance, Rondebosch. This action packed day is a highlight on the ballet calendar and provides excellent entertainment for the whole family and gives a behind the scenes glimpse into the daily life of a dancer.

OPEN DAY, organized by the Cape Town City Ballet’s Keith Mackintosh also showcased the UCT School of Dance and the Cape Junior Ballet (CJB). This year for the time, Zama Dance School was invited to showcase the training of a young township dancer from baby to mature student in an hour long lecture demonstration conducted by Leanne Voysey, Andrew Warth and 30 Zama students. Zama went on to perform Emma Jordan’s Bad Things at 2 fundraising performances held in the ballet company studio in front of full houses. Proceeds from Open Day support Cape Town City Ballet’s Outreach & Development Programs which Zama is a beneficiary of.

Sinethemba Tafeni and  Hlumelo Ntshangana
Zama Dance School students Sinethemba Tafeni and Hlumelo Ntshangana back stage with Cape Town City Ballet dancers Conrad Nusser and Jane Fidler on Open Day 29th March.

February 2014

Andrew Warth and Leann Voysey
Zama Dance School Director Andrew Warth with the schools Ballet Teacher Leanne Voysey at the prestigious cultural awards ceremony hosted by Minister, Dr Ivan Meyer from the Western Cape Government.

Zama’s Contribution to the Performing Arts in the Townships Recognised
Serendipity must be congratulated for starting 2014 on such a high note for Zama Dance School. Not only is it celebrating its 25th birthday this year, but the school received a Cultural Affairs award from the Western Cape Government.
Hard work and drive came together on Monday 10th February, when the school, it’s Director and ballet teacher, Leanne Voysey, were awarded the prestigious cultural award at a ceremony hosted by Minister Dr Ivan Meyer from the Western Cape Government. This award was received for Zama Dance School’s Contribution to the Performing Arts: Dance in the Western Cape and acknowledges work done in the artistic arena to uplift the people of the communities within the Western Cape.

Zama Classes Start and into LEAP Workshop
Three highly acclaimed professional dancers from the United States visited Zama daily where they taught ballet classes, repertoire and choreography for over 60 of our young dance students. 
The three American dancers are of a group of six who are working similarly at other institutions in South Africa (Dance for All & The Cape Academy of Performing Arts) and had all enrolled in the LEAP Programme (Liberal Education for the Arts Professionals) – a BA Degree course offered at Saint Mary’s College in San Francisco, California. Their hard work came together on Friday 14th when Zama hosted and presented what had been learnt in a studio concert titled, For the Love of Dance which was attended by over 300 guests, mostly families and friends of the students in the overwhelming afternoon heat. Students from Dance for All the Cape Academy of Performing Arts also took part in this performance which was once again presented at the Cape Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA) in Tokai the following day

Cristobal Marquez
Cristobal Marquez from LEAP engulfed by Zama dance School juniors during rehearsal

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December 2013

End of Year Outing at Ratanga Junction
On Thursday 5th December, 31 Zama students and staff went to Ratanga Junction for their end of year school trip.
This was a trip promised to all students who took their ballet exams from Grade 1 up and did not include the large introductory class. The students were split into two age groups; Leanne and I looked after the seniors with Vuyo and Nomtha taking care of the juniors. Fun was had by all with only two students running off to be sick in the bushes after riding the Congo Queen multiple times!

Zama dancers at Ratanga

November 2013

Exams & Concerts
November was a busy month with ballet exams and two end-of-year concerts on the calendar.
Exams took place on Friday 15th and again on Saturday 16th.  Our examiner this year was the Cape Town City Ballet’s Mervyn Williams. This year all exams were ‘in house’ which means we didn’t enter students to external exams.  The work presented was however RAD syllabus and I’m pleased to report all 79 students passed with average to very high results. 

Merwyn Williams
Cape Town City Ballet’s Mervyn Williams with Zama Dance School’s Leanne Voysey on Friday 15th November, presenting certificates to the 2013 Introductory class. All 45 Intro students passed their one hour dance exam and 33 of them have been selected to be next year’s Grade 1. The others will remain in the Intro class until they’re old enough to begin learning the more complicated RAD Grade syllabus.

On the mornings of the 5th, 7th and 8th of November I had the privilege of examining the students at the Cape Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA) in Tokai. CAPA is one of the foremost multi-disciplinary Academy’s for vocational students in South Africa and I would certainly consider it for Zama graduates to one day continue their training to a professional level.

On Friday the 29th and Saturday 30th November, we presented two concerts in our performance space at the school in Gugulethu. The first was a compilation of 2013 dance highlights and was performed for our Chairman Mr Raymond Ackerman, his wife Mrs Wendy Ackerman, our Trustees Freya Griffiths, Melanie Stark and Michael Sizani.
Also present were the Ackerman Foundation staff, Zama teachers and Funders (James Fernie from Uthando South Africa and Charles Maema from Cultural Affairs and Sport – Western Cape Government) as well as parents of our senior students.  This year’s performance featured guest dancers from the Cape Town City Ballet (CTCB). We are hugely grateful to the CTCB’s Keith Mackintosh and Tracy Li for bringing dancers Angela Hansford and Xola Putye through to Zama for their most amazing performances.

Busi Langa, Neige Virgilio and Sibu Sbuda
Former Zama Dance School students Busi Langa, Neige Virgilio and Sibu Sbuda Joined us at
Zama for our end-of-year concert.

The performance was repeated Saturday morning and the Zama performers were invited to come and watch the CTCB dancers from the front, which they thoroughly enjoyed.  This performance, with an added junior Tap number from the Grade 1 students choreographed by Sam Snow was for our students’ friends and family - as well as community members - and was followed by a presentation of their ballet exam certificates. It was well attended by an enthusiastic crowd of over a hundred and the Zama children were thrilled to hear that their Christmas surprise this year is a trip to Ratanga Junction!

Angela & Xola
Cape Town City Ballet guest dancers Angela Hansford & Xola Putye performed the Gypsy Pas de Deux & Coda from Don Quixote act 3 at Zama Dance School on Friday 29th and Saturday 30th November.

Bridging the Gap
For some time, we have been trying to find a way of accessing a social worker for the Zama students. With the assistance of Zama Dance School Trustee Melanie Stark, we have explored many avenues with little or no success. During November we reached out to two of the local primary schools – which make up the majority of our students - as part of the new Bridging the Gap programme. Bridging the Gap is in its early stages and we have so far only met with these two principles, but it is a start and I hope to communicate with more schools in the hope of sharing recourses.

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October 2013

Adele Blank Workshop
South African doyenne of contemporary dance, Adele Blank joined us at the Zama studios alongside students from Sannette van der Mescht’s ballet studio, Dance for Change for an afternoon of class and choreography, which afforded them all the opportunity to work with her and experience her unique teaching and choreographic style. A piece created by Blank on young dancers for Johannesburg’s Market Theatre recently, as well as 2 pieces by Zama’s dance students was later performed in a performance for our local community as well as parents of young students from Dance for Change which is based in Pinelands.  Adele Blank is known for her cutting edge work and for her tireless dedication to the development of South African artistes who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to train formally in dance.  Hundreds of dancers work professionally locally and abroad as a result of Adele’s commitment, encouragement and love of dance. Adele Blank recently launched a trust fund established in her name.

http://abfftrust.co.za/. The trust has been established to afford young emerging dancers who would otherwise not have the means or opportunity for post school training at a dance center of excellence abroad. The time frame for this extraordinary opportunity would be 6 months to a year and the students would then return to South Africa to share their knowledge.

Adele Blank teaching Zama Dance
South African doyenne of contemporary dance, Adele Blank joined us at the Zama studios alongside students from Sannette van der Mescht’s studio, Dance for Change

Guest teacher from the Cape Town City Ballet
Tusile Tenza, from the Cape Town City Ballet joined us for a week in to teach classes. Although not originally from Zama, Tusile is from the area and the children adored him.
Tusile came to us as part of an agreement between Zama Dance School, Cape Town City Ballet and the Amy Biehl Foundation where we would share recourses. Through this partnership, Cape Town City Ballet agreed to perform 2 numbers at our end of year concert on Friday 29th November.

Tusile Tenza
Tusile Tenza with the Cape Town City Ballet’s Keith Mackintosh and Zama dance School students

September 2013

Zama Nomination
Zama is nominated for an award by the Western Cape Government/Cultural Affairs and Sport, under the Arts and Culture Contribution to the Performing Arts (Dance) section. We will hopefully hear from them after their adjudication in early 2014.

Our new portable ballet Barres arrived this month and will make their debut in the ballet studio after the school half term break. Our older semi portable barres were fixed to the dance floor around the sides of our expansive dance studio. Over the past 13 years they have wriggled around by enthusiastic students and lately began damaging the expensive dance floor. So the old barres will be stored away and we will begin using our new portable barres which will also enhance our teaching abilities by bringing the students closer to the teacher who works the sound system which is in a fixed position. The barres can be brought closer to the front.

Ballet Barres
Zama’s new portable Ballet Barres make a welcomed new addition to the studio

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Theatre Dance Association (TDA) Eisteddfod
We’ve been working furiously hard this month in preparation for the 2013 Eisteddfod at the Sea Point Civic Centre. The eisteddfod comes once a year - and is without a doubt the highlight of our students’ year.  Apart from making new friends and catching–up with old, they get to perform and compete against students from other Cape Town based dance schools. This year there were over 80 schools competing and around 900 children entering in different artistic fields. Zama entered the set solo dance category and three group dance sections with excellent results.


Little Miss Muffet 7 to 8 yr old Set Solo
Monica Dumakude 98% - 1st place - Diploma
Tennis Dance 9 – 10yr old Set Solo
Tshepang Shumba 96.50% - Diploma
Buntu Anta 89.79% - Diploma
Zinzi Buthelezi 86.64% - Honours
Doll Dance 10 – 11 yr old Set Solo
Amohelang Rooiland 97.33% - Diploma
Chuma Nkumanda 95.49% - Diploma
Zikhona Papiyana 95.33% - Diploma
Asanda Mehana 91.81% - Diploma
Boys classical Solo 13 – 14yr old
Thimna Sitokisi 96.83% - Diploma
Lwazi Saphula 92.82% - Diploma
Tap - Any Age Group
93.81% Diploma
Bad Things – Any Age Group
87.45% Diploma
Friends and Other People
100% - Diploma


Bad Things
Choreographed for Zama by British guest teacher Emma Jordan won first place medal in the groups section.
Monica Dumakude was awarded a “We Saw You” medal for her excellent Little Miss Muffett
Tshepang Shumba was awarded R250 for her “Eye Catching” Tennis Dance
Amohelang Rooiland was awarded a “Most Promising Junior” medal for her Doll Dance
Thimna Sitokisi was awarded R500 for his solo in the classical ballet section

The LEAP programme visits Zama Dance School
During the month of June, six professional dancers from America visited Zama Dance School where they taught ballet classes, repertory and choreographed for 60 of our excited young dance students.  The six American dancers who enrolled in the LEAP programme (Liberal Education for the Arts Professionals), a BA Degree course offered at Saint Mary’s College in California, travelled half way across the world to spend two exciting weeks with the Zama children.

Through their teaching at Zama and time spent with the teaching faculty, the professional dancers learnt about the principles inherent in the study of dance, including how self-discipline and perseverance plays an important role in the lives of these young people living in Cape Town’s townships.

They learnt too that having a career in dance may only apply to a small percentage of Zama students, but that the majority of children exposed to dance benefit hugely when it comes to confidence, dedication, punctuality and self-worth. Their hard work came together on Friday afternoon when Zama hosted and presented what had been learnt in a studio concert attended by the families and friends of the students. It was once again presented at the Cape Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA) in Tokai the following day. CAPA is recognized as one of the leading dance academies in the Western Cape, if not South Africa so it was a truly special occasion for Zama dancers to perform alongside CAPA’s counter parts who had also taken part in the LEAP workshop.

Keelan Whitmore
Keelan Whitmore from LINES Ballet Company, San Francisco puts
Zama Dance School students through their paces.

Mantu Jakavula
June also saw former Zama Dance School student Mantu Jakavula return and conduct a week long workshop with the students. On a short break between contracts – he agreed to spend some of his time with us at the school which we were naturally thrilled about.  It’s so important to have former students return and teach as well as mentor. It’s not always possible, taking into account their busy professional timetables, but when they do return and share their knowledge, our students see first-hand that they can also have careers on stage - if they desire and are prepared to work for it.

Mantu Jakavula
Mantu Jakavula spent the past year performing for Costa Cruise Lines in
the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf - but is excited to be back teaching at Zama.

May 2013
Ballet at Artscape
On the 10th of May we took a small group of our senior dancers to Artscape Opera House to see a performance of the Cape Town City Ballet’s Camille.  Our very own ballet teacher, Leanne Voysey was a guest artist in this season and performed the role of Anina, Camille’s faithful servant.
We were also treated to a backstage pass where we met the two leading artists Lisa Vieira and Daniel Szybkoski.

Backstage with Cape Town City Ballet
Backstage pass. Zama students meet
Cape Town City Ballet’s Lisa Vierira and Daniel Szybkoski

March 2013
Emma Louise Jordan
During the second week of March, British guest teacher and choreographer Emma Louise Jordan arrived from Freiberg, Germany.  She taught our senior students for three weeks and produced a new piece for the school called Bad Things. Based on a Cowboy & Vampire theme and danced to the theme tune for the popular TV series True Blood, the students thoroughly enjoyed themselves.  We look forward to entering it at the Eisteddfod later this year.

Emma Louise Jordan
Guest choreographer, Emma Louise Jordan returns home much
to the dismay of us all at Zama, but more so to the students in her piece.

So You Think You Can Dance
Fifteen Zama students were once again sponsored by Theatre Dance Association to participate in this year’s So You Think You Can Dance convention held at Reddam House in Tokai. The guest teachers, all winners or runners-up from the 2012 season of the hit American version of this show were Chehon, Tiffany and Melanie.

So you think you can dance
Melanie, from So You Think You Can Dance takes the junior class
at the dance convention held at Reddam House, Tokai.

February 2013
Zama Graduates Moving Forward
18 year olds Candice Dongwe and Sonia Yabo, both long time students of Zama, were accepted by two of Cape Town’s finest tertiary establishments.
Candice Dongwe secured a place at the UCT School of Dance where she has begun her three year Dance Teacher’s Diploma and Degree course.
We believe Candice will enjoy a wonderful career on stage one day and we look forward to following her journey. We hope she will return to her roots here at Zama and help motivate the next generation as others have before her.
Sonia Yabo auditioned for the Waterfront Theatre School this month and was immediately accepted.  The Waterfront Theatre School has a very high success rate of general theatre employment, particularly in the musical world so wish Sonia all the best and look forward to seeing her on stage one day.

Zama Dance School would like to acknowledge Mrs Wendy Ackerman who has supplied invaluable financial support so that both Candice and Sonia can move forward towards their chosen careers.

January 2013
Zama opened its doors for 2013 registration on the 16th January, which was once again co-ordinated by the school’s secretary, Vuyokazi Rubuxa.  The results of our refreshed partnership with the Amy Biehl Foundation last year were plain to see this year when 26 new Grade 1 dancers from the Nomlinganiselo Primary School in New Cross Roads enrolled for classes.

Zama School Bus
The Zama school bus, driven by Andrew Petersen is now used daily
to fetch and drop our new Grade 1’s as well as shop for the feeding scheme.

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November 2012
November was a busy month at Zama with internal ballet exams being held and two end-of-year studio concert performances. All students passed Zama’s internal ballet exams this year with the majority receiving marks between 80% & 90%. The first of our two concerts held at the school was for Mr & Mrs Ackerman, our Trustees, funders and friends. The second was for the general public, but mostly friends and family of our students. Both performances were received well and the school packed to the rafters.

October 2012
For two of our young male students, exam time came early this year. Thimna Sitokisi and Lwazi Saphula, both 13 years old, took the external Royal Academy of Dance’s Intermediate Foundation exam this month.

September 2012
The beginning of September saw the end of the TDA Eisteddfod and Zama was invited to dance in the Finals, against other winning groups. Zama’s group dance, Beautiful Things, choreographed by Leanne Voysey, competed for top spot and came in 1st with Gold. We also presented our Productions group, Mamelani. This came in 2nd and was awarded Silver. Another highlight was 13 year Thimna Sitokisi receiving the award for best junior dancer in the whole competition. This year teachers were recognised for their work and Andrew Warth walked away with the TDA Fabulous Trophy.

“We at the TDA would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Andrew Warth on winning the “TDA FABULOUS” trophy – a Teachers award - at this year’s Eisteddfod of the Performing Arts. This year it went to you in recognition of your involvement, dedication and commitment to the ZAMA dancers. Your genuine concern and love for the kids is so evident and there could not be a more worthy winner of this coveted trophy. Well done to your contribution to dance in general – to ensuring that it is enjoyed by all. We at the TDA acknowledge the huge part that you play in promoting and keeping dance alive in our disadvantaged areas and amongst our less fortunate communities – we are fully aware of the impact you have on the developing youth in the Western Cape. Di Fincham; Janice Tighe; Denise Morrison”

Zama also visited the Teplov ballet shoe factory in Somerset West this month which the children loved. 30 students were transported in 2 kombi’s and a car. In their new dance uniforms which we ordered from First Edition Clothing and their new shoes, the children looked smart for end of year ballet exams.

August 2012
August is Eisteddfod month. This year there were 89 schools competing and well over 1000 children took part. Zama entered the solo dance category and two group dance sections.

Zama’s solo dancers all walked away with High Merits and Honours. Thimna – the only boy in that section - was awarded Diploma, the highest mark possible and was then also awarded the Best Overall Junior Dancer award.

The new Zama school bus is now operational and the Zama team has a new member, our driver Mr Andrew Peterson.

June 2012
Zama students took part in the Theatre Dance Association’s Inspirational Workshop which was held at the UCT School of Dance. With over a 100 participants from dance studios from across the Western Cape, this year’s theme was Musicals, Acting, Singing and Dancing.

May 2012
New students from the Amy Biehl Foundation started this month, increasing our numbers to 90. They are bussed in by the Amy Biehl Foundation on Friday afternoons for our popular Introductory Class.

The new Zama Dance School website was launched. It contains lots of interesting information on Zama’s 25 yr history, including how Mr Ackerman and the school’s founder, Arlene Westergaard teamed up in the early days.

Zama’s Candice Dongwe auditioned for the UCT School of Dance and was accepted.

Leanne and I attended a 3 day syllabus training course held by Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). This ensures Zama continues to provide a level of teaching in keeping with international standards.

April 2012
We received and laid our new dance mats this month.

Ballet mats (or dance mats), are an essential piece of studio equipment. They prevent injuries incurred through slipping and falling and also prolong the life of the wooden floor below. Ballet shoes last twice as long on the smoother mat surface than on the rough and sometimes splintery wooden floors

The entire school was invited to a matinee performance of the Cape Town City Ballet’s Giselle. It was a beautiful performance danced to orchestra and the students were treated to a special behind-the-scenes tour after the show. Not only did they see what it looks like back stage during a huge production like Giselle, but they were also introduced to leading dancers, Megan Swart and Thomas Thorne.

January 2012
New ballet teacher Leanne Voysey joined the Zama teaching team and former student Mamela Nyamza returned as guest contemporary dance teacher and choreographer. Khulile Mbizela passed his RAD Intermediate Ballet exam in November of 2011 with a MERIT, and we were extremely proud to award him his certificate in front of the other students. Khulile is a shining example of one of Zama’s many success stories in the community of Gugulethu and its surrounds. He not only exceeded our expectations, but his own as well by passing this extremely complicated and challenging exam. He’s a positive role model to all the students at the school, proving that with hard work and determination, one can achieve anything.

Leanne Voysey
January 2012, new ballet teacher Leanne Voysey
joined the Zama Dance School teaching team

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2011 and before

End-of-year party and farewell to Arlene Westergaard
Friends, family and colleagues of Arlene Westergaard – spanning almost three decades – gathered to honour her and wish her well in her retirement at Zama Dance School’s year-end function on 25 November 2011. Introduced by the school's Patron and Chairman Raymond Ackerman, students past and present performed works choreographed especially for Arlene, in dedication to the woman who had played such an instrumental role in enriching their lives.

Farewell for Arlene

Extract from Arlene Westergaard's director's report for 2011
"This is the end of my 27-year career with Zama Dance School and I am looking forward to my retirement after so many years filled with happiness, challenges and achievements. It is now time to hand over the responsibility of running the school to Andrew Warth.

I want to thank the funders for their generous support of the school, which has and is still making a huge difference to the lives of the children who walk through its doors. Above all, I want to thank our chairman, Raymond Ackerman, for his continued support and his belief in me and the fact that Zama can and has changed children’s lives.

I also want to thank my brother, Dr Malcolm Sandler, for his continued guidance as a trustee as well as the friendship and guidance I have received from June Hanks and the late Alan Odes. I would also like to thank all the members of the Ackerman Family Foundation for supporting the growth and development of the school.

A very big thank you must also go to Vuyokazi Rubuxa, our loyal and caring school secretary, who has been my right hand all along. I am confident she will continue to serve Zama with the same loyalty and caring she has given the school for many years to come.

Thinking of all the friends and colleagues I have met, who have been instrumental in the growth and development of Zama, and in answer to the question that some of them have put to me recently about what I’m going to do now, I will continue along my spiritual path through my studies of t’ai chi and, as the old saying goes, ‘one door closes, and another one opens’.” – Arlene Westergaard

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World famous ballet dancer Li Cunxin, author of the autobiographical book, Mao's Last Dancer, visited South Africa in February 2010 to raise funds for the Zama Dance School Trust in Gugulethu, Cape Town.

Article written by Debbie Hathway and published March 7, 2010; Weekend Argus; The Good Weekend, Sunday

Mao's last dancer brings message of hope

World-famous ballet dancer Li Cunxin (pronounced Lee Schwin Sing), author of the autobiographical book, Mao's Last Dancer, recently visited Cape Town to help raise funds for the Zama Dance School Trust in Gugulethu.

Tickets for his one-off motivational talk to scholars and ballet fans at the Cape Town International Convention Centre sold out and many balletomanes missed the opportunity to hear his inspiring story. Li's short visit was dictated by his "crazy" schedule, which includes touring to promote the film of his story, launched at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. "It ranks 11th among Australia's biggest films ever," says Li.

Five years ago, Li visited Joburg's townships while in South Africa on business and says he was reminded of his "childhood situations". Born into a peasant family during Mao Zedong's rule of communist China, when about 35 million people died of starvation, Li was selected to train at Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy.

Li Cunxin
Li Cunxin gives instruction to young Zama dancer, Khanya Vakala.

"China has come a long way but deep in the country there are still poverty-stricken scenes. Maybe not as bad as South Africa..." says Li. His journey began at age 11, when he was sent away from his parents and six brothers, who he saw only once a year for the following seven years, to train for something he knew nothing about and grew to "hate with a passion".

"We didn't know what ballet was. We had no cinemas; no theatre. I was the weakest in my class, and I couldn't jump. My teacher described my legs as overcooked spaghetti."

In comparison, students at Zama Dance School find sanctuary in classical ballet from as young as six years old in the nurturing environment established by artistic director Arlene Westergaard 25 years ago. Supported by the Ackermans Family Trust, and assisted by ballet master Andrew Warth and secretary Vuyokazi Rubuxa, Arlene is now able to provide 85 children "a home away from home" for a few hours a day. Zama gives them the opportunity to forge professional careers as dancers and choreographers after they matriculate. Raymond Ackerman said Li's visit was symbolic for young people, "not just in the dancing field, but in many fields. Education, dedication and hard work are the epitomy of what this man has achieved. Mao's Last Dancer is one of the most emotional books I've ever read."

Li's training at the esteemed Beijing Dance Academy was six days a week, from 5.30am to 9pm. An inspirational teacher gave him determination and courage to work harder, practising his turns by candlelight and hopping up and down stairs with heavy sandbags tied to his ankles to build his leg strength.

Resilience, perseverance and vision made Li one of the best dancers China has produced. He was discovered by Ben Stevenson, one of the world's most respected teachers and choreographers and the artistic director of Houston Ballet, during the first US cultural delegation visit to communist China. Li defected to America and danced with Houston Ballet for 16 years and Australian Ballet for another four years.

"I hope that whoever hears my story, reads my book or sees the movie takes away encouragement, courage and strength to achieve their best in life," says Li.

Now, he juggles duties as board member for Australian Ballet and patron of the Newcastle Dance Academy of Australia with work as a senior manager at a major stockbroking firm and motivational speaking at engagements that give him a "similar buzz to finishing a wonderful ballet performance".

During Li's recent visit to Zama, student Neige Virgilio said that she really appreciated "Mr Li" taking such an interest in her and helping her with her technique.

Many of the young dancers agreed that he had made them feel that no matter what their circumstances, if they really wanted to they could use their ballet "just like Mr Li did" to achieve success when they grew up. "It's very rewarding... touching younger audiences," says Li. "It gives me the most pleasure as you have to use your imagination to find the right words to inspire them. In the financial world, you have to take emotion out of it."

He says purpose and passion helped him reach his goals. "Self-belief is the foundation for confidence and I developed a deep love for ballet."

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Zama and the Ackerman Family Trust

79th birthday for Raymond Ackerman
Zama students celebrate Raymond Ackerman's 79th birthday

Zama and the Ackermans Family Trust/Foundation

"In 1984 Arlene (Westergaard) asked if she could meet me and I said yes - I see anybody who wants to see me. She said, 'I'm a dancing teacher, I teach young children - mostly wealthy white kids - but I really want to teach black kids, in a black area. Will you help me?'

"I was impressed by that. I asked what she needed and all it amounted to then was petrol money and a nominal rental for hiring the space she was using to teach classes in a church. Here was this woman going back and forth from Cape Town to Gugulethu in very difficult times in the apartheid era...

"Years later (1994/1995), just after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Arlene came to me again and said: 'Is it possible that you can build me a school?'

"I nearly fell off my chair. I don't know much about dancing and I didn't know anything about building a school but I looked at the figures and, again, said yes!

"My wife Wendy is heavily involved in our family's social investment and educational programmes. We've grown some lovely people - one guy received a Sainsbury art scholarship and we've sent music students to The Juilliard School. I thought this fitted in quite well.

"It's about changing lives, giving children hope...

"It's the reason I went into business (I always wanted to be a doctor). I learnt that the more you give to others, the more people will give back to you.

"In 1948 I heard a lecture in commerce from Professor WH Hutt at the University of Cape Town. His message was about consumer sovereignty and that if money-making is your objective, you won't make it in business. A similar message was repeated at a seminar that I attended in the US in 1956 given by a master of retailing, Bernado Trujillo. He said business should be built on strong administration, good advertising, the right merchandise at the right price and social responsibility. I tried to sell that idea to Greatermans and it got me fired.

"Pick n Pay was built on simple principles and I've lived them. I've spent my whole life backing people...

"And I was so impressed with Arlene and what she was doing for those little children at Zama (and some of them have gone on to perform in shows like The Lion King and become good professional dancers), that I couldn't stop helping them. Her enthusiasm for the kids and the way that they were being given a chance in life is my reward."

More about Raymond Ackerman

  • The only South African rated one of the world's top 100 most respected businessmen by the Financial Times
  • Honoured for his role in changing the retail landscape in South Africa through maximising consumer sovereignty within the Pick n Pay Group - the very idea that got him fired from his position as general manager of 85 Checkers stores for Greatermans at age 25; for his contribution to South African society through social investment and education; and for the legacy he has entrenched at Pick n Pay
  • Retired as chairman of Pick n Pay on 14 March 2010, just a few days after his 79th birthday, 42 years after he founded the company


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