How Sylvia Glasser’s Afrofusion Transformed the World of Contemporary South African Dance
Sylvia Glasser might politely demur at being called the grande dame of South African contemporary dance, but it’s no overstatement. On our Skype conversation, she’s quietly thoughtful, and unpretentious. Yet “Magogo” (meaning “grandmother” in all Nguni languages), as she is affectionately known, has brought more than dance to the generations of students she has taught, and to Moving into Dance, the company she founded over 40 years ago. Glasser’s pioneering Afrofusion style has revolutionized the world of contemporary South African dance. Her groundbreaking performances have changed the conversation around issues such as gender, race and social equality. Moving into Dance was also the first company in South Africa to bring multi-racial dancers together at the height of apartheid. At the same time, Glasser championed dance-based education for disadvantaged youth to help lift them out of poverty. Her artistic and humanitarian contributions earned her a Life-time Achievement Award from the Arts and Culture Trust of South Africa in 2004. She was knighted by the government of Netherlands in 2014 and granted the Order of Ikhamanga Silver in 2016 by the South African presidency. Now 79 and retired, she remains steadfastly committed to dance—and decidedly humble.
Growing up in a white Jewish family in Polokwane (then known as Pietersburg), capital of the Limpopo Province in South Africa, Glasser was aware of her privilege as well as the larger social and ethnic disparities around her. “I have always had a very strong sense of social justice,” she says, her eyes flashing. Her voice then softens: “Seeing black people in South Africa being excluded because of the colour of their skin… There were friends whose grandparents or family had been killed in the Holocaust. So it was something very real to me.”
After studying dance in London, she pursued further studies in social anthropology. Throughout her academic years, she continued to practice and teach dance. “I always loved teaching, and it was important to have a contract of trust with the people I was teaching. I have always been more interested in the whole person, rather than just the dancer, and my work has been about bringing people together. Dancing together does create bonds.”
Glasser shares that it was also during her early years in academia that she discovered the writings of archaeologist David Lewis-Williams on the art and mythology of the San people. “The San were the first people of Southern Africa; they are Bushmen, and at the bottom of the racial ladder,” she says. “I learned from [Lewis-Williams] about the very strong spiritual aspect of the San trance dance.” She channeled this understanding into her seminal production “Tranceformations”, to explore the trance state of shamans as they perform healing rituals. With choreography and imagery evocative of San ritual and rock art, this work has been lauded for its visionary aesthetic. It synthesizes traditional African and Western contemporary dance while celebrating San culture. Many dancers, including Gregory Maqoma, one of the best known choreographers in South Africa today, and Vincent Mantsoe, an internationally acclaimed fusion performer, have spoken about being changed by the experience of performing in “Tranceformations”. “They were proud to have been part of this process,” Glasser says. “It taught them to respect other cultures.”
With a quiet assuredness, Glasser goes on to add: “If I hadn’t done dance, I would have wanted to do social work… I think [Moving into Dance] was so important in empowering young black dancers and changing the attitudes of young white dancers.” The company has become an internationally renowned incubator of dance talent, with an award-winning repertoire that has favoured socially conscious themes.
As Glasser recently celebrated the release of her book, “Tranceformations and Transformations – Southern African Rock Art and Contemporary Dance”, the fruit of 20 years of research, she reflects on a trailblazing life and career. “I didn’t know what would happen. I did what I thought what was right, what was necessary and what I wanted to.” She recognizes the challenges of maintaining an arts-based non-profit when government funding for the arts is in increasing jeopardy. Still, she is hopeful: “At the core of everything, the idea that one person can definitely make a difference…if people bought into that idea, there would be so much more hope for our world.”
“I find MAPS’s holistic approach refreshing. Parvati.org has acknowledged the interconnectivity between our environment and our humanity, including the healing aspects of practices such as yoga and dance. Each individual can make a big difference, and I believe this applies to supporting the work of MAPS.”
Sylvia Glasser is the founder of Moving into Dance, a leading Contemporary African dance company, where she pioneered the Afrofusion and Edudance styles. As the company’s Director, she championed dance education for disadvantaged young South Africans, as well as mentoring performers and choreographers who have become national and international leaders in dance.