My very first dance teacher was Dimaktso “Mama D”/Janet Hampton in Houston, Texas. Dima, or Mama D as she was affectionately known, taught traditional South African dance. An exceptional performer, she’d toured with the South African international musical Ipi NTombe. In Houston, she performed with Kuumba House Dance Theatre — as did I some years later — a South African dance company founded by arts-educator and native Lindi Yeni; and she was part of a cohort of South African drummers and dancers formerly with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus. Dima instilled in her students much more than traditional South African dance steps. She introduced me to ululating (how I miss it), how to project my voice, and she made sure to convey the cultural relevance behind the dances and songs she meticulously shared. She generously rooted in me a love of South African dance and culture, and laid the foundation for way more than dance.
Dima didn’t really use mirrors. Often, classes were offered inside her home tucked away inside Houston’s Third Ward. There, we re-arranged furniture and danced on top of painted layers of bright Ndebele-like designs bordering the wooden living-room floor. Dima was your coach, hype-crew, anchor and reflection. Her eyes, facial expressions, posture, and in particular her vocal calls, were your gauge.
Under Dima’s guidance we learned traditional dances, songs, rhythms, and some language, of course. During class-times she sprinkled terms of encouragement from the Zulu, Xhosa, and Shangaan ethnic groups. As her student/cultural ambassador, the cultural gems she imparted to you were expected to be nurtured, and shared. In the decades since many terms have faded from memory/use, though a few I keep in rotation. A “yebo” here, a “wasa wena” there.
Sometimes when I accompanied Dima at social or cultural events and didn’t vocalize enough appreciation, my reprimand was quick. For example:
Scene: At an amazing cultural event, I am reservedly quiet.
Dima: (Looking dead at me) “Eh! What’s wrong with your voice?”
Me: (Realizing quick, fast, and in a hurry that my shyness or whatever was going on was not going to cut it. At all. Me loudly calling) “YEBOOOOOOOOO!” Yebo means “yes” in Zulu, one of South Africa's 11 official languages.
Another memory I have with Dima was when African revolutionary, President Nelson Mandela visited Houston to speak. As the official proceedings were going on, I remember immediately spotting Dima and a small company of dancers and drummers, jogging up towards the stage with absolute conviction. Each member dressed in full traditional regalia to perform for Madiba. Beaded dresses, skirts and animal skins swayed rhythmically as they all approached, and then immediately commenced in their offering. They succeeded in performing ever so briefly, until a squad of stern unhappy looking security guards ushered the group to an abrupt halt. Dima and the group didn’t fully perform, but were collectively triumphant and appeased in their attempt to pay homage.
Fast forward to a late Monday evening after a series of long days. I‘d been invited to give a five-minute presentation before the City of Austin’s Arts Commissioners to promote Dance Africa Fest’s upcoming Sept 2019 workshops. My strategy was simple: talk about our guiding mission to amplify African cultural heritage via Black/African diaspora dance. As I briefly summarized my primary dance training to the commission -- sharing background about my work, why I do what I do -- tears apparently waiting in reserve sneaked all the way out. Over the years I had lost touch with Dima and my attempts at finding her were unsuccessful. Not hearing the sound of her voice, or knowing where she was weighed far heavier than I realized.
I had five minutes to speak. Good grief. With tissue in hand from staff and after a few good breaths, I straightened my back and commanded that dais. My presentation wasn’t exactly what I had planned -— you know who wasn’t prepared to sneaky cry during a public presentation? Yep, sure wasn’t part of the plan. I spoke from the heart and it all came out. Not in the order I planned. But better. I emphasized among many things, the importance of cultural heritage, how expansive the dance forms are, and how the workshops explore the global footprint of dance across the diaspora. Not just a workshop here and there from one of the fifty-four countries of the continent. A world.
When I finished my presentation, I turned to take my seat back in the audience, and there were folks standing and applauding. For me. As Dima would say, “wasa wena!” (I’ve since forgotten the exact translation, though I liken wasa wena to mean in this instance, “Go Tonya!”).
Dima, I’ve been told, is residing these days in Soweto. My heart is eased and I’ve renewed my search to find her.
This truth remains: I still prefer to take classes without using a mirror.