It has been an exhilarating few weeks since the release of South Africa’s new dance production on Netflix, Jiva!. The story, based in Durban, follows a young, ambitious dancer who dreams of reaching the pinnacle of one of South Africa’s most vibrant forms of performing art. In her bid to do so, she recruits a number of her city’s hottest dancers to form a group known as the Trolleys – but don’t judge their moves on this name.
Part of that group is Zinhle, played by Sne Mbatha. As far as renowned South African dancers go, Sne is up there with the best of them. The performer and choreographer has made a name for herself both in South Africa and abroad having shared stages with the likes of Drake, Usher, Bryson Tiller and more international A-Listers
This would already be enough of an achievement for some, but Sne has had her sights set even higher. During our interview, she spoke fondly of a special moment where her grandfather spotted her dancing during a family event, and predicted that she would be one of the biggest stars her generation had ever seen.
Those prescient words have proven true in the decades that followed. Today, Sne Mbatha is hailed as a pioneer of dance. One whose contributions have helped A South African artform transform into a lucrative industry, and one whose talents stretch beyond the dancefloor.
For the third installment of #MoziakxJiva, Sne Mbatha was eager to give us all a lesson on South African dance.
Sne Mbatha – A guide to South African Dance
We’ve thoroughly enjoyed Jiva on Netflix as a production, but none of that would be possible if South African dance didn’t exist. Do you feel as if the series finally put SOuth African dance where it deserves to be?
Definitely! Without a shadow of a doubt. Our dancers are doing a lot of great things and the entire team and cast on Netflix deserve a huge round of applause because everybody brought it. You know when everyone is putting in the same level of effort, and everyone is supporting one another to say “push that little further you’ve got this” or “we’re almost there trust me – take it again” and they do it with passion, with commitment? That’s what this was.
It was so energising to be part of that kind of environment and the production deserves all the props it has been receiving.
You, much like the characters in the storyline, have your own South African dance story. What is your earliest dance memory?
Yho, you are taking me back! Let’s see – it’s definitely a memory where Boom Shaka’s Thobela was playing and everyone in my family was just in such a celebratory mood, I can remember that. I can’t quite recall what the occasion was, I just know it was mid-90s so it could have been anything from democracy or AFCON or something. But I do just remember everybody getting down and dancing and partying. During that time, I was 6 and I absorbed the energy in the room and also just got down and started dancing.
Everyone was doing their thing, as they do at parties, but my grandfather, through all that was going on, noticed me and I guess he must have seen something quite impressive because he boldly declared, “This girl is going to be a star! She will be a famous actress and dancer, her name will be everywhere, she has the talent”. And that moment just stuck with me as the first time my God-given talent was seen and maybe even predicted.
From that moment, did your family help you get opportunities, training or schooling or did you have to pursue dance as an interest or a hobby?
The important thing to note is that I never reached a point where I went to tertiary school for dancing. The group I did join, Dance Direction International, was more of an extracurricular activity for people who had the passion. But I didn’t get to a stage where I received formal schooling for dance.
On top of that – my parents had a very traditional idea of where my life should be going. It was all about academics, school, studying, getting a degree or a diploma as an accountant or lawyer or doctor. That’s what people in my family generally went on to do, we had no creatives!
But what I will say I really love is that whenever I decided I was going to do something, my mother would be behind me. My family would support me. So when it got to the stage where they could see that dance was becoming a real opportunity, they backed me.
Your grandfather’s prediction looks to have come true – you’ve shared stages with international singers like Usher and are now starring on blockbuster Netflix productions like Jiva! What made the difference between being another talented dancer to becoming the star you are today?
Sometimes I even forget the amount of work that I’ve done because it has been a spiritual journey for me more than anything! It has been a blessing to have this privilege and ability to reach and network with so many people. I don’t take it lightly. I went from being another dancer coming out of Durban to being a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance in 2010, and then I went onto Red Bull Beat Battle and I met more people there.
In 2012 I was trying to reach out with Khuli Chana a lot. I was meeting his managers, his team, trying to see how I could get involved there. So you see even at a young age I was already doing so much. Then I got the opportunity to perform at the Usher concert with my then dance crew, Genesis Kings.
Then I got exposed to a lot more people and I networked as much as possible. And believe it or not, I connected a lot with the media people the most and they are the ones who plugged me the most. There were so many people in the background who would recommend me and those recommendations go a long way. People like Sibu Mabena, David Matamela, Jay Kayembe and so many other movers and shakers.
Instead of only relying on working with celebrities, I built relationships with managers and media professionals but they would connect me with the likes of Somizi, Red Bull, the Castle Lite gigs etc. There was a lot going on and it was a very long journey but that’s how my universe works. I always connect with people in different spaces when I need to meet them.
Do you feel like there are more opportunities these days for up and coming dancers than there were when you were coming up?
I really think so. The dancers of today have plenty of platforms and opportunities to really make an impact now and build their own brands, and it’s so great to see a lot of people I was rising up with have broken their own boundaries. But eish 10 years ago it wasn’t quite like this!
I remember hearing Somizi describe the story of how he was booked to choreograph the SAMAS (back when they were the MTN SAMAS) and he had to WALK to the offices, with his design and idea written on a few pages and he walked and walked and walked until he got to the place where the meeting would take place. He then waited for his appointment and then before long he just wowed them with his presentation. It’s this kind of determination which we had to show just to get a foot in the door.
For International Audiences who are watching Jiva for the first time – what can you tell them about South African dance?
Firstly that there’s a huge history you can tap into! South African dance is a constantly evolving art form and we have eras and different cultures in our dance.
There’s a lot of modern moves to enjoy right now like the gwara gwara which was made famous by DJ Bongz and has dominated many recent years of local dance.
I’m such a Durbanite so I love ukbhenga!
Sbujwa is definitely a groovey and swaggy type of dancing – Soweto’s finest, and Tembisa’s Proppellors do it so well. This made me fall in love with Joburg dance.
There’s also isiPantsula, which has a long history of its own in many Urban areas and some dancers even blend it with isbujwa.
Obviously AmaKwasa! It all started with iKwasa so any Kwasa dance is where you need to start your education of local dance!
Where do you stand on the “apprecation” vs “appropriation” of South African dance?
There are times when I’m happy to see South African art out there, because it’s obvious it came from us and the world gets to see and appreciate our work. But there are other times where it feels like you take our intellectual property and don’t correctly credit us. This is a tricky one and please don’t cancel me when I say I’m not a fan of Beyonce for this! I’m sorry, not sorry.
She’s not the only one but she’s a good example. I think there’s a lot you have to do when it comes to crediting the originators of work and I don’t think she has done enough when it comes to using South African dance.
I love Rihanna, but I mean when she did the gwara gwara I wish she could have taken a lesson from someone who knows the history of the dance.
What’s the next big move that we can expect Sne Mbatha to make?
So I don’t usually reveal things too early! But I can assure you, there’s some exciting moves coming that you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on. For now, please keep enjoying Jiva! On Netflix or check it out if you haven’t watched it yet!