It comes as no surprise that one of the most prestigious dance schools in England has clinched the services of Andile Sotiya, a renowned South African-born dancer and choreographer. The Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds boasts a student component from across the world and is a “unique dance training institution offering a select group of students the opportunity to develop and excel as dance artists in a conservatoire environment”, according to its website. He is currently teaching dance technique and contemporary dance at the school.
My interest in Andile Sotiya goes back some 12 years ago when I met him as a young teenager in 1995. I was a 16-year-old schoolgirl and he was a 20-year-old dance graduate. He left for London shortly after our once-off meeting, but the memory of that day has always stayed with me. When the opportunity arose to profile South Africans abroad raising the country’s flag high in their chosen fields, he was an obvious choice.
I didn’t know what to expect when I finally tracked him down for the interview. Maybe his accent had changed; maybe he had fully embraced English culture, who knows? Imagine my delighted surprise when he got on the line and casually said “Heita!” (a South African township slang greeting), like any other outie [slang for “guy”] in his South African accent. I’m relieved.
Sotiya’s rise in the international dance arena has been an interesting, long and sometimes difficult journey. The 32-year-old dancer was born and raised in the township of Gugulethu, Cape Town. After completing his studies in dance at the Tshwane University of Technology (then known as Pretoria Technikon), he was offered a scholarship to train at the prestigeous Rembert School of Dance in England.
When he first arrived, Sotiya was starry-eyed and ready to take on the challenges that lay ahead of him. “For me it’s been about the adventure and absorbing all that I can.” He says he decided to be open-minded: “I opened my eyes and ears to getting more information and learning about myself as well.
“I have been lucky in that I have done fairly okay, surviving a very stiff [dance] competition in the UK. If I look back at what I have achieved, it’s quite a bit. Not only from a dancing point of view, but also in terms of getting to know whom Andile is. ”
His accomplishments include holding residencies at Yorkshire Dance and at the Belfast Metropolitan College, which was sponsored by Dance Northern Ireland. He has choreographed numerous of his own dance pieces which he perfomed at dance festivals. He has also choreographed pieces for dance companies, including the Barebones Dance Company, the Northern Youth Dance Company and the Phoenix Dance Theatre.
Sotiya has also been able to break into commercial dancing – touring around the world as one of the lead dancers for Australian-born singer Kylie Minogue. “Dancing with Kylie has been one of my career highs. It was great fun, we spent six months touring. We did the UK, Australia and America. Touring exposed me a lot to the world. It also gave me perspective of what was missing in the theatre aspect of dance.”
But a subject that is very close to his heart is South Africa. Although he has been away from home for more than a decade – with his last visit being a brief one five years ago – Sotiya keeps abreast with everything that is happening in the country.
I ask him what people’s perceptions are about South Africa in his neck of the woods. “When I arrived in 1996, everyone was still watching how the country was going to change. For me personally, it was about watching home from a distance. We have done very well as a country, but there are fundamental things that we have done very badly. We need to go back and look at what freedom is all about, what the principles of what we fought for are all about.”
He is particularly critical of the way that the media in the UK has portrayed South Africa. “I find myself being in defence of South Africa. The media looks at the negatives ... So there is this kind of fear campaign happening and it’s influencing the way the world looks at the country. Crime, Aids are all challenges that we have in the country, but that’s not all that’s happening.
“Take the [Jacob] Zuma issue for instance. In many ways, Zuma has come to represent what South African politics are all about. When the [Shabir Shaik] corruption trial came up, for instance, and Zuma was mixed up in all of that, it became about looking at the calibre of politicians the country has.”
Sotiya adds that it’s not really fair for the international media to expect South Africa to be without problems. “We are not running away from our problems, we are like any other country. You see, there are two types of South Africans abroad. Those who will constantly complain ‘crime this’ and ‘crime that’, justifying why they left home. Then there are those who look beyond the problems.
“I’m not naïve to say the problems of the country define the country. You see beyond the problems of the country when you are away from home. You look deeper into the fabric of society, and that is what I have done.”
Sotiya is looking forward to bringing his family, consisting of two sons – aged four and one – and his partner from Madagascar back to South Africa one day. He says he wants his children to taste, even on a smaller scale, the type of upbringing he had, growing up in Gugulethu.
He reminisces that he grew up carefree, playing in the street with other kids, and generally enjoyed being raised within a community, something that his sons have not yet experienced. “I’m excited for my children to grow up the way I grew up, where family extends beyond blood. Here in the UK, it's the two boys, their mum and me; we don’t have any family around. I want them to know who they are.”
Sotiya says his oldest son now understands the concept of extended family, following the visit of his grandmother from South Africa. He has even had a chance to meet his cousin. “My son cries for his grandmother, and it’s not easy to explain to him why we are still here. In another few years, it’s really all about balancing things out here before making that big decision to move.”
He says that now more than ever, he really has been missing home. With the Aids pandemic being so rife, Sotiya has also lost friends and family to the disease and it really saddens him. “It’s difficult to phone home and be told that ‘so and so’ has passed away and you can’t even be there to attend the funeral. I miss the family and I miss feeling connected to something bigger than my own surroundings.”
He is looking forward to bringing his family to South Africa for a visit in 2008. This, he says, will give him an idea of how his children will adjust to life here in the future, though he doubts it will be difficult for them to connect with coming back home.