Grahamstown’s Janet Buckland may be petite but her voice has the authoritative eloquence of a diva. Her focused glance looks over the rims of her designer spectacle frames which balance like a well-trained gymnast on the edge of her dainty nose. Her head slowly sways with the motion of her student dancers.
As the young student dancers came alive on the stage of the Rhodes Theatre this past Monday evening, her focused poise followed their every move.
It’s only when the dancers took heir curtain call that Buckland’s gaze relaxed and her radiant smile revealed Grahamstown’s best pearly whites.
Janet is the 2009 winner of the Pick n Pay Woman of the Year Award. She is a seasoned theatre director and an accomplished arts educator.
She could be spending most of her time drinking café lattés and discussing arts theory with Grahamstown’s arts academic community but instead she has chosen to give her free time to the more than two hundred children for whom she has launched the Amapiko Township Dancers. Black children in Grahamstown are generally a hidden brand.
They only really become visible during the National Arts Festival when they withstand the bitter cold winter to parade as whitefaced mime statues begging for coins and reminding festival visitors of the economic impoverishment in the Eastern Cape.
Buckland’s passion and commitment to her two hundred dancers is about giving Grahamstown’s children life-long visibility. Since launching the Amaphiko Township Dancers, four of her students have moved on to take dance as an academic subject at school. Another two are studying dance at Rhodes University.
One other student has graduated as a dance teacher and she now works for the Amaphiko Township Dancers. Another student has received a full scholarship at Rhodes University. Above all, each of Buckland’s dancers has improved her grades at school.
Janet Buckland’s Amaphiko Township Dancers offers hope that the next Dada Masilo might just be lurking somewhere among them. Perhaps even a Nelisizwe Xaba. Maybe even a Kitty Phetla.
But the greatest satisfaction comes from watching how Buckland teaches her young dancers to take ownership of their bodies, their voices and their minds.
So it’s not a far-fetched thought to expect that from among her dancers, South Africans might see the rise of the next Mampele Rampele, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf or even the next Oprah Winfrey.
Furthermore, she integrates essential life-skills – learning as an integral part of being a member of the dance company. She teaches the students to assert themselves confi dently and eloquently.
She teaches them how to embrace their poverty and how to powerfully grasp their futures in a way that only they can shape it. Amaphiko is a Xhosa word which means “wings”. Janet Buckland is giving these girls more than just wings. She is teaching them how to fl y.
And when after each dance performance, you witness how the girls come to nest themselves in Buckland’s warm embrace, you can only marvel at the way in which Grahamstown’s “Mama J” is investing in a better future for Grahamstown’s invisible children. Now that is the kind of year round activism that will make a real difference!