There’s a reverence in the way that Sne Mbatha speaks about dance that is usually reserved for the church’s faithful when wrapped up in worship. Where the latter is swathed in dogma, Sne’s voice almost takes flight – as her body does mid-sequence – as she tries to describe the phenomenon to me.
“I’m really terrible with words, I just feel like when I start dancing people understand me better, I feel like that’s a God-given language, every time I dance I feel close and connected to God, I feel like I understand why I still dance. Even though I can go through my ups and downs with dance financially; dance versus the world, dance is in pain but dance versus God, dance is perfectly aligned.”
“Whether in that moment I’m broken, or I’m in a great space, or I’m in a state of unalome – sorry, the state of unalome is the path of enlightenment; finding your peace and stuff – I find myself connecting better with people, I speak the secret language, the language of the universe through dance. So that’s all I feel in that moment; I literally just feel like… I feel like you would understand me better versus me speaking to you. I feel like if we were doing this interview and I started dancing, you’d get the answers quicker. To me, it’s not a normal thing; a lot of people dance because they can dance and because they’re gifted and what not, for me it’s a deeper meaning than that, it’s my purpose, it’s the language of the universe.”
Sne began dancing with her cousins as a child but her gift was first noticed by her grandpa. “Actually, the one person who called my mom out to say ‘You need to be mindful of this child and you need to recognise her talent’ was my grandad. He’s the one who basically told my mom to send me to a dance school or something, help me pursue a career. He basically saw me as a dancer that’s gonna travel the world, because I used to dance so much.”
Her mom heeded the advice and sent her to an arts school. Self-taught until then in street-style dance, it gave her the opportunity to expand her repertoire to classic dance styles and even belly dancing. Moving into tertiary, however, her studies took more of a corporate route. “I’ve always been an arts student, I’ve always sketched and stuff. So since Durban doesn’t have a lot of institutes for us to pursue our acting careers and dancing and stuff, my mom wanted something more solid, more corporate. So the best one I could think of was being a graphic designer. And I really, I enjoy graphic designing because I like the idea of being in corporate but it mustn’t be too serious. So I feel like graphic designing was more fun corporate for me.”
Auditioning for the second season of So You Think You Can Dance brought her into the public eye. It’s difficult not to watch Sne dance without being thoroughly captivated; the same fascination that gripped the nation jump-started her career as a dancer.
“You know you don’t realise your calling until you get a young slap in your face and it’s like ‘OK snap, this has always been my calling.’ You hit a moment of realisation where you’re like this is actually more than just the passion now. I went through phases of ‘OK, this thing? I love [it].’ I mean, deep down I’ve always known that I love this thing and it went from loving this thing, to the excitement of being in a dance studio, to the excitement of being able to travel, to the excitement of being on television… Because I’ve always seen myself, and I’ve always looked at Somizi, I’ve always looked at Lorcia Cooper, and I’m like ‘Yho guys, one day I’m gonna be on that stage’ and the excitement of not just being on the stage but actually choreographing that stage.”
“That’s why I say this dance thing is actually a language because you keep learning more and you keep discovering more and more about yourself and the connection that you have to this thing. And the fact that I’ve been through the heaviest highs and the heaviest lows and I’ve never changed, I’ve always been a dancer, it speaks a whole lot of volumes to me. ‘Cause I could’ve easily said I can’t do this thing anymore, I’m going too low with it. And I would’ve worked a normal job. But I’ve always been like I’m riding and dying with this thing. There are many ways that God speaks to me through dance.”
There’s a dotted line of spirituality running through her every statement. At a place in her life where that guidance is more of a solid line than the EKG wave it’s been previously, she takes me through her journey. “I come from my grandmother who used to send us to the Roman Catholic church and I never used to like it because I never understood it.” Moving between different churches in her teens, she found a different kind of devotion in her movement.
“With dance I started discovering more in different types of religions and beliefs. So I was more exposed to more options and I was like there must be a way, there must be a language that connects everything together. So I’m slowly getting into Buddhism, I’m now in yoga, and now Christianity as well. So I’ve found a way to balance all three of those things and connect them to dance. So literally all three of these things they come through dance. And I’ve built a connection to God and the world and Mother Nature and the universe.”
“I’m very connected to the sea, that’s where the yoga part comes from; like I literally believe in water. I believe in the waves, how waves build up and then they crash on the shore and then they go back; that’s my life. I look at it as a metaphor for my life, that I just gotta keep going no matter how many times I might fall, just gotta keep going ‘cause that’s what waves do. So that’s the same thing, I think that’s how I discovered and how I found my connection to the secret language of the universe.”
Feeling very strongly about how dancers aren’t paid accordingly in SA – “In this country we still have a long way to go in terms of changing how the system of dance is ran. I don’t think a lot of – that’s the thing that clients don’t understand – a lot of dancers don’t care about the fame and being in the forefront or whatever, the only thing we want is to be paid.” – I wonder what she feels are the other hindrances to the progression of the art form here.
“There’s this unity that dancers want, but in the same breath people are not OK with seeing growth in other people. That is mainly because of the money and the fact that there aren’t enough opportunities. I don’t want to say jealousy necessarily, but people are very protective of their spaces and people still want to chase credit.”
She adds, “Also, brand management. Not all of us have understood how to manage ourselves as a brand. I feel like we’re still in that battle of discovering who we are, having respect for our work and how we look, how we carry ourselves. Brand intelligence; we don’t have that as yet. I also do feel that other dancers who come into the industry, they just feel that they can just tip-toe their way around it and then they call themselves dancers, or they call themselves choreographers and they don’t understand the process. That just kills the industry in itself; there’s too much competition, there’s too much judgement. It’s weird, but if corporates gave us enough opportunities and paid us enough, I don’t think we’d have to deal with a lot of drama. And it’s not just corporate because how else will corporate see us if we don’t even carry ourselves as brands, if we don’t respect ourselves.”
At its peak, and in its prime, what would dance look like in SA? “The way I see dance in this country, I see it as a subject in schools; not just colleges, not just in institutes. I do feel that children find more confidence in movement, they find so much more joy in movement. Kids shouldn’t just be forced to do sports, the heavy sports like cricket and rugby and whatnot, some of the kids just try because if you look they can’t run fast enough or they’re just not good enough. I think the option of dance should be put in the syllabus.”
“I see so much in dance, like I said it’s a language on its own. Not everyone is gonna understand it as a language but let us give the creative minds an opportunity to not be forced to be actors or rugby players, let’s give them a platform where they can just let their hair down and just express whatever [they want to].”
In an industry that requires an incredible amount of training and discipline but doesn’t get the acclaim commensurate to the rappers and vocalists that they flank on stage, reconciling that is a relatively easy task for her. In her love language with the universe, nothing else matters. “I’ve worked, definitely over a decade, probably like 13 years in the game. It is hard. Look, I don’t know, I always say to people that I don’t care about being the trendsetter, I just wanna leave a legacy.”
Photography: Haneem Christian
Syling: Amy Zama
Makeup: Caroline Greeff