Thato has been involved in Boys Dancing for a number of years - initially as a participant, and now as a Boys Dancing apprentice.
"I grew up in South Africa and my first introduction to dance was doing South African Gumboot dancing when I was really young. Thinking about it now, that was the only thing that I felt really fitted me. I’m quite sporty and got good academic grades, but there was nothing that I really excelled in other than the Gumboot dancing. But in South Africa everything is about getting a good academic education and working hard to get a job, so doing dance wasn’t ever really an option.
Then I moved to the UK and had to get used to a different culture and being the new guy at school - a school where dance just wasn’t cool. Being the new guy I didn’t want to go against the grain and got involved in sports instead - which helped me make friends and settle in. So it wasn’t that I didn’t like dance, it just wasn’t really on my radar as a career option, or any part of my life trajectory at that point.
About five years ago, the Boys Dancing team came to Lillington Youth Centre, where I used to go to the youth club, and did a taster session of one of their performances. Up until that point, dance was never really a masculine thing to me. At my school, most people that did dance were girls. So that was the first time I saw guys my age, being masculine, doing incredible stuff. It was a new thing that I hadn’t seen before: normal guys who just did things like I did, like listening to hip hop, into the whole skateboarding thing, playing a bit of guitar, so I was like “OK... Guys do this! Maybe this is my opportunity to give it a go?”
So I got involved with the project as a participant and I really enjoyed it. It helped that Dave [choreographer] and the others saw something in me and said “You should try doing more of this, you’re catching on really well”. So from there I kept in touch with Dave and the rest of the group, and whenever they did workshops I’d get involved and have a go.
I don’t think I’d have got so involved in dance if it had all been female teachers. Particularly for young people, the inhibitions are much greater when there’s someone of the opposite gender there. You don’t want to look like an idiot in front of a girl. But once the bug has bitten you... Now I go to a ballet class when I’m the only guy with eleven girls!
As well as workshops, I started learning to dance from the internet: I learnt street dance moves off YouTube! After that I started doing proper dance classes, worked some more with Dave, and then, sort of by chance, ended up being an apprentice on the Boys Dancing project a couple of years later. I’d decided to do some voluntary youth work back at Lillington Youth Centre, and the first day I turned up to volunteer was the first day of a Boys Dancing project with Chris Bradley as choreographer. I just asked Chris if I could help out, and I started working with him on choreography and teaching. Warwick Arts Centre suggested that I apply for a formal, funded position as an apprentice on the project, which I was successful in, so that’s how I started teaching dance too.
Being involved in Boys Dancing over a number of years as a participant and an apprentice has been scary, fun and life-changing! One of the biggest turning points for me was working on a piece with the other apprentices: being immersed in dance for three weeks with guys my age who were all passionate about dance and had all different kinds of training and styles completely changed everything. I went from a guy who just liked street dance to signing up for ballet classes, tap classes, modern jazz and lyrical classes - as well as a bit of capoeira!
Although I was the least technically trained of all the apprentices (all the rest of them had just completed degrees in dance), I enjoyed it because it pushed me - I enjoyed the challenge of having to work a little harder with movement patterns, technique and flexibility. Not only did I learn to dance but I also got to meet some great people, and I still have those links now with other dancers from all over the UK.
The most difficult thing was realising that I loved dance at the age of nineteen or twenty, when everyone else had been dancing for so long. Knowing that there were gaps in my technique that I had to fill meant that I had to let go of my ego: the first ballet class I joined was full of little ten year old girls, but I knew I needed the training, so I had to get over that!
In a lot of ways, Boys Dancing has helped me to stop taking myself too seriously. Because when you start dancing, or working on a new dance, at the beginning it all looks a bit silly. So once you’ve learned to let go and not worry about looking silly or awkward you start to feel more confident. And also more confident in how you present yourself in other situations as well, not just in dancing.
I dance everywhere now! Even if there’s just music playing in a shopping centre, now that I’m over feeling silly, I’ll just start doing a little dance! But not even ‘cool’ dancing. My friends pretend they’re not with me! Dance has a way of making people laugh or smile or feel other things - it’s really engaging. Seeing how people respond or react to dance is great, whether I’m performing myself or helping other people learn as a teacher."