Zinhle Khumalo
4 minute read
20 Jun 2015
12:00 pm

SA dancer climbing global ladder

Zinhle Khumalo

Renowned South African choreographer Paul Modjadji has added another feather to his cap after being selected for US President Barack Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative (Yali) by the United States government.

Paul Modjadji poses for a picture after speaking to The Citizen in Sandton, 5 June 2015. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Despite his busy schedule, Modjadji still arrives refreshed for an interview at a restaurant in Sandton – and although meeting for an interview, he still had his ballet shoes with him.

“It’s pretty overwhelming at a personal level – and professionally it goes to show that even a dancer can be recognised by one of the most powerful people in the world. It’s humbling,” says the joyful Modjadji of his selection.

Chosen from among the top 1% of applicants from Africa and the US, the 31-year-old from Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria, will fly the South African flag high on the initiative embodying commitment to invest in young people.

“It’s so groundbreaking for me to live in a time where a dancer can be regarded as a force, one of the pillars of society; for leadership; for change,” he says.

Although coming from a small town, this Mzansi choreographer has climbed his way up the ladder into the international arena. “I grew up in a very loving family. We weren’t rich in terms of finance, but we were very rich with love,” he says taking us through his childhood. “I had a very sound upbringing by both Mom and Dad,” he says.

Modjadji, who lost his dad later in life, says he doesn’t believe his parents understood how to handle the ultra-energetic child he was. “They gave me a platform, nonetheless. My family was the first audience I ever had.”

As bubbly as he says he was (and still is), he does not believe his family ever saw this coming. “I don’t even think I’ve seen my dad dancing … It wasn’t sort of an easy acceptance.” Modjadji says he remembers the long discussion he had with his dad regarding choreography. “And from there I just got opportunities to choreograph. It’s like they came knocking on my door,” he says.

“It was weird. From a young age I was always a kid who was artistically inclined. I knew that was my strength; I don’t remember being confused about that.”

South African musical films Sarafina and Fame the Musical played an important role in inspiring Modjadji to be where he is today. “I have watched those productions more times than any young person. I have memorised the lines, the choreography and music.”

The selected Yali applicants will be studying at a US university in either public management, civic leadership, or business and entrepreneurship – and it includes a six-week leadership training and mentorship course.

“The knowledge and expertise developed through Yali are a valuable resource I will plough back into South Africa as I work to support and develop the values of the Mandela Washington Fellowship,” says Modjadji. The Mandela fellowship is a Yali flagship programme. “It’s like a baton has been handed over to say: ‘Continue’,” he says.

On completion of the programme, Mojadji says he will return to grow his non-profit organisation, the Leaders Who Dare To Dream Foundation. He says Yali will assist in developing his foundation as he will also be interacting with potential investors. This would help him to empower communities such as Hammanskraal in addressing social ills, such as the use of the notorious drug nyaope. “Most communities don’t have places where young people can showcase their talents,” he says.

Modjadji is the sole official brand ambassador for the City of Tshwane, choreographer of Africa’s first internationally released cinema dance film Hear Me Move, two-time world dance champion, a global brand ambassador for the International Dance World Cup, and was last year identified as one of the top 200 young South Africans.

“I had to pinch myself – like, is it really me? It was humbling,” he recalls. “But it’s so important to understand that every nod that comes, also challenges you to keep that light going.”

The dance star’s first big job was choreographing for the India-Brazil-South Africa summit held in India. Modjadji started dancing formally at the age of 16, which he says is considered very late. He holds, among his other his qualifications, one in business project management.

“Choreography, for me, I think was a calling. How it happened was rather a very natural progression. It’s almost as if I was in the right place at the right time and that’s where the story of my choreography was born.”

– zinhlek@citizen.co.za