In the South African entertainment hierarchy, dancers are not usually considered to be at the top of the pile. DJs, singers and soapie stars often command greater audiences. Yet there’s a dance group out there that’s changing the game. Over the last year, they’ve become increasingly visible, appearing on television shows, at festivals and in the country’s biggest music videos (remember the guys in the gold pants killing it in Mafikizolo’s “Khona”?). The group is called Vintage Cru and through their unique blend of next level contemporary dance, relentlessly avante garde style and outspoken challenge of parochial social norms, they’ve risen to become one of the most exciting acts in South Africa.
The journey hasn’t been without its challenges however. With openly gay members in the group, the Vintage Cru has endured countless insults and threats. In late September 2013 they were even assaulted as they boarded a taxi in Johannesburg (fortunately no one was physically harmed). Despite the intimidation, they have stayed focused on pushing the boundaries of dance in South Africa and they remain resolute in unapologetically living the lives of their choosing, inspiring others to do the same.
We spoke to a few members of the Vintage Cru, Ashwin, Lee-chè, Tarryn, Rogue and Tokyo about elevating the standard of dance, defying heteronormativity, the realities of race in the “rainbow nation” and their eventual takeover. This interview was conducted jointly with Ts’eliso Monaheng.
What is the philosophy/ethos of Vintage Cru?
Ashwin: Vintage started with myself and Lee-chè. We wanted to have an all male waacking/vogueing group because to South Africa this was something new. To us it was original, we had to bring something new to the dance industry in South Africa. At that time we never knew anything about fashion, we never knew anything about being legendary, we never knew about building something for yourself. We loved dancing so we thought we might as well do it all the time. And it was four boys with Kyle and Sigulela as the other two.
But we thought we needed more. And then we bumped into Manthe Ribane who used to work at this small shop in town called Fruitcake. She had this aura about her. Some people just give off this aura where you love to be around them. And when we met her we thought this girl might just be what we were missing. Manthe brought image, she brought style to the group. And that’s when we decided our image as a group needed to evolve.
Then one of the members came up with “Vintage” because he googled it and he saw that it related with “legendary” and “timeless”. That’s what we took on as a group… because anything that we created from that point on we wanted to be legendary. So when people look back into the archive of everything that we’ve created they’ll think it’s still amazing, it’s still brilliant, like vintage itself.
Lee-chè: Another thing is, because we are such outcasts we took it upon ourselves to create a place where we get to be free and experience ourselves the way we want to. We tackle social norms that people don’t want to speak about in our performances, we attack those issues, we challenge, and we don’t care if you don’t want to speak about it we’re still going to show it to you in our performances. When we go on stage we bring a gallery on stage. And that means the House of Vintage is creating an art piece in a museum, but it’s on stage. So we add the fashion, we add the theater, we add the music, we add the choreography. We add all of these aspects into our performance because no one else is doing it in the world. It’s the gift that we’ve been given.
Manthe recently left the group, but you added 4 new members in February 2013. How have the new members contributed to the group’s evolution?
Ashwin: When we had our auditions we said in the beginning we weren’t only looking for dancers. Dancing is 1% of everything that you need. You need personality, you need to have a skill to bring to House of Vintage. Tokyo, he studies fashion. So it added an element to the group, now we can design our own things because we have a brain who knows how fabric should be working. We have Rogue who does marketing. As a group, marketing for us is big. We want to reach the rest of the world out there so we put his skills to the test. With that, every other member had to find their skills. Tarryn does videography and radio as well.
For the new guys, when you saw the call for auditions, what made you want to join?
Rogue: The fact that they were themselves when I first met them. I felt like I needed to come out of who I was at the time and become who I really I am. So joining the Cru was the first step of accepting myself.
Tokyo: Being in Vintage is about accepting yourself for who you are. Because for me, before I joined the crew, it was not so easy in terms of my sexuality. Whilst in the Cru I’ve eased into it and relaxed into my sexuality. So yeah, it has helped me as a person, not just as a dancer or a designer.
How do you address social issues in your performances?
Ashwin: If we just walk in town, already it’s a problem for people. We have this thing we say when taxi drivers try to have their way with us: we’ll never remember them, but they’ll always remember us. Because at the end of the day there’s 10,000 taxi drivers, but there’s only one Vintage Cru. For our social impact in terms of dancing, we sit and think of what is relevant with the world right now. In terms of South African politics, social issues that people never want to talk about. Like gender-based violence, one that we’re always faced with in the Cru. As well as poverty, which is still a big thing in South Africa. Because we are a fashion group, style plays a big role as well. To South Africans our style themes are weird, but I promise you in 5 years, everyone will be dressing like us and joining the trend.
Lee-chè: I think the way we approach it is, when we create, we see what’s happening and we want to take our knuckles and we want to knock at peoples’ foreheads. Wake up! When we were on the show Step Up or Step Out, there was a piece we did which was a lesbian wedding. And we knew what we were doing because we knew we were going to be on TV. For the performance we had Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and we had Tarryn marry Robyn. The guys were the bridesmaids in heels. And at the point we knew, this is going to be something that South Africa is going to talk about. Because they never show these things in South African media, when they show it, it has to be after 9pm or censored and not on a Sunday during primetime when everyone’s at home.
Tarryn: When we did that performance it was the same week there was a documentary on TV about the gender-based violence especially targeting lesbian women and gay men. It was about how they were being shot and killed for being gay. So we did our performance that Sunday evening and then an hour later it was Debora Patta showing how people are being killed. For us, we know this is real, this is happening and if we don’t say anything or dance about it, no other dance crew is going to do it.
Lee-chè: We utilize what we can because when we know we’re on a platform like that we can push it. We did one performance where we dealt with a homeless person. We brought this image of what it is like to struggle. We’ve done peer pressure, drugs. I think a lot of people don’t get it though. Because when we portray these things it’s still a shock to them. It’s like a slap in the face. People think, “why are they talking about something that we don’t want to talk about?” We want to keep these things undercover since we’ve been a democracy, since 1994. They know we’re gay, but they still want us to keep it undercover, even though they know we deal with it in daily life. I was a victim of gender-based violence because I got stabbed in Johannesburg, but that didn’t stop me from doing what I needed to do. That was what inspired a routine we did on the show Turn It Out, where it was like, “Fuck South Africa for all it stands for. I’m still going to keep what I’m doing whether you like it or not, if I die because of it, fine! At least I was dying for a good purpose, because I was trying to change society.”
Tarryn: There’s so many people that are inspired by what we do. We get so many supportive messages on facebook and twitter. Before the final Step Up or Step Out show we got this message from a woman who said, “You guys inspire me. I watch you every Sunday and I’m voting for you. I was in a car accident and I’m paralyzed and I’m in a wheelchair now, but I still want to dance, I still dance in my heart and it’s only because you guys have given me that hope.” For us, that motivates us to carry on doing what were doing. We can touch people on a broad scale.
Why didn’t you win the Step Up or Step Out competition?
Lee-chè: Let’s go there. This is something I’ve realized from being on TV since back in the day. You don’t win in South Africa unless you’re part of the majority. And unfortunately we only had one black person in our group at the time and that was Lebo. We were on a TV programme and unfortunately a black crew has to win. Because if a black person doesn’t win it means we’re not living in a democracy. It means we are not living in the new South Africa. It means it’s not BEE. It means those things if we have a group with coloured people like us winning a competition like that.
Tarryn: Yet we’re also black and we also fall in that gap. But it’s like, “You’re a little lighter, so sorry. Your people didn’t vote for you, so sorry.”
Lichee: We’ve also realized it’s based on the people who create these shows. They already know whom they want to win. Whether you are changing social perspective, whether you are upping the ratings, they already have a winner in their mind. They will keep you there until the end because we are the ratings, but at the end they’ll drop you because they don’t care anymore. They already got what they needed from you so now they can move on with life. But we’ve taken that and smacked them in their faces because we’ve become better than the winners. But we couldn’t win because we’re not black enough.
Have your performances contributed to opening peoples’ minds?
Lee-chè: People always tell me, “You’ve made me become a more free person. A person who I want to be.” When it comes to Vintage as a crew, we’ve created this standard of life where even if you live in Soweto and life is hard and you can’t be yourself, you’re still going to push to be the person you want to be because you have people like us who inspire you, when everyone is not there. We will hold your hand through that moment if we have to.
Ashwin: Also, dancers are always on the bottom on the entertainment food chain. People believe that dancers alone can’t make a show happen and we’ve proven them wrong. We had a 25 minute performance with outfit changes. And as dancers we’re always at 100%. So after 2 minutes we were already coughing blood, but we kept our composure as a group and made it to the end.
Tokyo: We’ve now even gotten to a place where we are being booked as the main artists for a show and not as simply backup dancers anymore.
Tarryn: The funny thing is we’ll go to a casting and look at the reference photos of how people are styled and it’s us in the photo. When they think of what they want they think of us. Full force. Live jive!
Can anyone become a dancer?
Lee-chè: This is something I think South Africa is missing. If you say you’re a dancer and you go on stage and show me you know how to make your arm straight and pop properly, but you don’t have entertainment value, then I’m sorry, but you are not a dancer. What we believe in is that you need to engage your crowd and make them feel something.
Tarryn: Because at the end of the day when people see a dancer they are watching music in motion. We all listen to music and we all interpret it differently, at the end of the day it takes a brilliant dancer to actually show what the music is doing. You can’t go on stage and be pap! Then you are not a dancer, I’m sorry. Us here we take it seriously, it’s our 9-5. Yoh, it’s deep!
Lee-chè: It’s something we’re very passionate about and I think it’s the reason why some of the other dance crews don’t like us. For them it’s like, “OK, I’m going to go to rehearsals tomorrow for 2 hours and be late 30 minutes and then start dancing, what I create it’s just to make money.” For us we are here everyday of our lives, Monday to Sunday 356 days of a year, the only time we get to see life, is when we go to perform. It’s about the drive for perfection, the drive to create legendary and timeless performances. When we leave this planet Earth we want to be known. We want to leave behind a legacy.
Ashwin: And people are just afraid of the truth. If we are going to watch you perform on stage and you are not breaking your body for me then I’m going to tell you it’s kak. I’m going to tell you what you just did now is pure kak! Where’s your passion, where’s your drive? It took three competitions for us to understand that we’re bigger than who we are. We lost three dance competitions in a row, in front of South Africa, millions of people. It took all of that for us to realize our true potential. That’s the thing that other dancers are missing. Maybe another group won the competition, but when we see them today, we’re like, “Hi, are things still good? Oh you’re working at Ackerman’s (a budget clothing store), that’s nice. Good for you. I’ll see you at the Summer Awards, I’m choreographing.” Simple as that.
Where do your dances come from? Are your influences traditional, contemporary or something else?
Lee-chè: As a choreographer I want to create something that no one else is doing. Whether it starts out bad or good, it always ends up being something everyone thrives in. At the end of the day all of it turns out beautifully, like an art piece. Inspiration comes from everyday life. Circumstance. Sometimes I watch videos and I decide I need to do something around that tip. There never needs to be a time where you can say we’re just waacking or just voguing. I never want to be identified by just one style. That’s the same way we approach fashion and that’s the same way we approach life. It needs to be timeless and it needs to be legendary.
Ashwin: We have respect for different dance forms and we pull our inspiration from them. We pick up on small things like the different facial expressions in ballet and tango. We pay attention to detail.
Lee-chè: Music is a feeling that you have to evoke through dancing. For us if the song is saying this than do this. If “Khona” is saying you need to stomp into the ground so that hell can feel you. Then you will stomp into the ground. We can do pantsula, but if the music is not saying pantsula, we’re not going to do pantsula. The music influences the direction of a lot of what we do.
How has your upbringing and your interactions with different people influenced your outlook on life?
Lee-chè: This is a very personal thing to me. I grew up in Cape Town in a very rough neighborhood. My father was a gangster and he basically just sold our toys, sold everything for drugs. So I grew up and went to school and I didn’t see black people in my class. When I moved to Johannesburg that’s when I first got acquainted with black people. That was nice and I always used to be the friend in class. Because I’m a free person and I loved interacting with people and learning new things. Back in Cape Town the separation is there. Coloured people do not relate to black people. It’s racist to the core. Something hasn’t clicked in some coloured peoples’ minds that it’s about humanity. But for me being in Vintage, it had to click immediately because I deal with different people all the time and the entertainment industry is filled with people of different colours. I didn’t hold the things that were done to me by different kinds of people against me, the robberies and the stabbing, I instead reversed them and related as a human to the situations. I don’t know if I can change coloured peoples’ perceptions of black people, but as long as I can show that I am a friend to black people, maybe you observing can also do that in your daily life.
Ashwin: We always say Cape Town is a Country on its own. I was fortunate to have a mom who was open-minded. From the time I was four my mom moved me to an area where I could be with different kinds of people, not just coloured people. Although she was a single mom doing her thing she made sure I was in the new South Africa. When I go to Cape Town I take my black friends with me and I don’t give a fuck. I’m going to behave the way I want and they are going to accept it.
Tarryn: In Johannesburg, the roles are reversed because there are more black people here. People have this perception that coloured people are violent and I deal with it every day of my life. But we don’t let that phase us, we just keep on moving.
Lee-chè: Because we are so close knit as a family we will defend each other to the core. We can be entertainers on TV, but there’s this level of respect we have as people and we’re going to defend each other until the end. If you can’t relate to a person of another colour because of your stigma, that’s your problem, but I have grown up and gotten to know people on a human level and that’s what I’m taking with me until I die.
South Africa is marketed in terms of being a “rainbow nation”, how do you see it?
Tarryn: You’re right it is depicted that way. At every casting there must be a black person and a white person and they must be interacting even if they don’t like each other. It’s not happy go lucky every day. They are selling dreams. Even on this block in Maboneng you can see the dream vs. the poverty.
Ashwin: Outside we get attacked daily, whether it’s verbally or what. Some days you have the strength to go through it, other days you just want to hit someone.
Tell us about The Takeover, your plan to rise to the top of the entertainment industry in South Africa and beyond?
Ashwin: The Takeover started in February when we decided we wanted new members in the group. With the new members it tallied the team to 9. We were able to split the team and kill two birds with one stone. In July we began the Takeover 2.0 by pushing the ratchet element because now people in South Africa are beginning to pick up on the word ratchet. If you look at our pictures from 2011, we’ve been doing ratchet. Because we’re in the last phase now you’re going to be seeing more behind the scenes material about what it’s like to be a Vintage member before you see us on stage. It’s also called the “Bow Down Phase” because we’ve been working too hard and it’s high time that you actually respect us for what we’ve doing.
Lee-chè: Takeover of all sectors of the entertainment industry – empire. All the sectors you think we can’t. That’s what we’ll be doing. Point out an art form and we’ll be there. The characters we’ve created like Ratchet Rochelle are just the tip of the iceberg. The one’s coming are even more controversial. One thing we don’t like doing is we don’t like speaking about something until it happens. So we’re really on the hush until, boom!
Vintage Cru consists of 9 members: Ashwin, Lee-chè, Tarryn, Lebo, Robyn, Rogue, Tokyo, Kyle and Junior. They regularly tear it up in Johannesburg. Follow them on Twitter, facebook, YouTube and tumblr.
Black and white images (c) Tseliso Monaheng | Color images (c) Zachary Rosen