by Sam Mathe
In the valley of the sandy Molototsi River in the Tzaneen area, Limpopo, live the Lovedu people. A steep winding road leads to a traditional homestead of thatched huts perched on a hillside below a forest of cycads.
This is the royal capital of the Lovedu people and the sacred dwelling of the fabled Queen Modjadji, the most famous Rain Maker in Africa. Her ability to transform the clouds into rain earned her reverence even from the mightiest of military rulers, including Shaka Zulu. The queen received offerings and gifts from near and distant kingdoms in times of drought to persuade her to weave her magic of rainmaking.
South Africa's prince of dance Paul Modjadji is a descendant of this proud lineage and like the legendary rain queens he has also achieved acclaim - but as a world champion dancer and choreographer. The 31-year-old go-getter, who is also a motivational speaker, entrepreneur, scriptwriter, producer, actor and author - to mention just a few of his multiple roles and talents - has garnered a number of awards since turning professional as a ballet dancer 10 years ago.
This year was a particularly rewarding one for the Hammanskraal-born achiever. In November, he received the prestigious Inyathelo Philanthropy Award, his most treasured award to date. The Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards were established by the South African Institute for Advancement in 2007 to “acknowledge, celebrate and profile those who have committed their personal resources towards broader social development in South Africa. Philanthropists are nominated by their peers and members of the communities in which they work or by the non-profit organisations that they support".
Previous recipients include Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah Tutu, as well as Romeo and Basetsana Kumalo. Modjadji was recognised for his achievements in the arts as well as his dedication to improving the lot of young people in underprivileged communities such as Hammanskraal where he trains young dancers. He also plans to raise funds to establish dance academies in South African townships and villages. "The essence of Ubuntu is that giving is a daily practice that doesn't always mean grand gestures.
It is a way of living that recognises that we are all here to serve each other, even if serving means giving the elderly lady your seat on a bus or donating time to an orphanage," he says. To date, he has offered dance classes to over 10 000 young South Africans in all provinces through his five-year-old Leaders Who Dare to Dream Foundation. "I have received international accolades of standing such as the Mandela Washington Fellowship African Leaders Award, which was personally given to me by President Barack Obama in Washington DC in August this year," he says.
"But I regard the Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards as the Nobel Prizes of South Africa. Nothing has given me more personal satisfaction than being associated with homegrown awards that have honoured a great South African like Archbishop Tutu."
He capped his year of accolades early this month with an Award of Recognition as a South African arts and culture consultant. It was bestowed by the Chinese business community through the Chong Qing Chamber of Commerce for the work he does in promoting arts and culture between South Africa and China. "It's a great honour to be acknowledged by the Chong Qing Chamber of Commerce," he says.
"The win cements our shared interest in pursuing a long friendship between South Africa and China. "I had the privilege of travelling to China as a choreographer for the closing ceremony during the South African Year in China that took place in Beijing last year. The event was attended by both the presidents of South Africa and China.
It was amazing to note how much we share in common, and learning from another culture was a fruitful experience: In February, his choreography skills came to the fore following the release of Hear Me Move, the first dance film on the continent. Produced by Wandile Molebatsi and directed by Scottnes L Smith, the movie's cast includes Lorcia Cooper, Lilian Dube, Amanda du Pont, Nyaniso Dzedze, Mbuso Kgarebe, Sthandiwe Kgoroge, Khanyi Mbau, Makhaola Ndebele, Alfred Ntombela, Thembi Seete and Boity Thulo.
Five years in the making, Hear Me Move showcased at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals this year and features homegrown urban street dances such as ispantsula and isbujwa. Global and classical styles like hip-hop and ballet also feature prominently. The movie relates the story of two brothers who come from different sides of the tracks but are brought together by their mutual love for dance. It premiered on February 27 and went on to become a mild box office success. According to the producer, it will be screened in the UK and other parts of the world, including Africa, next year.
"Hear Me Move is a celebration of South African narratives and local talent through the medium of dance in all its diversity," Modjadji explains. "We have a rich reservoir of stories that are not celebrated enough. During the auditions it was amazing to realise the wealth of talent we have in this country. "With this film we have started a revolution in this country.
Already there are two big budget movies on dance being filmed." Modjadji's other notable achievement this year was choreographing the Gauteng Sports Awards. Modjadji matriculated in 2001 at Hillview High in Mayville, Pretoria.
"I have always loved dancing, but never dreamt of being a ballet dancer," he reveals. "I discovered ballet in 2002 when I went to study dance in Denmark "My parents taught me to believe in myself and although learning ballet was a challenge, I persevered:' In the same year, his talents and leadership qualities caught the attention of the Washington DC based Global Young Leaders Congress who honoured him with the Global Young Leaders Award.
In 2003, he returned home and enrolled at Tshwane University of Technology where he was trained in jazz and contemporary dance. He later added kwaito and hip hop to his repertoire. His television breakthrough came in 2005 when he landed an acting role on Backstage, e.tv's youth soapy. He regards it as his first proper professional job. But it was as a dancer that his star has soared to dizzying heights and enabled him to realise his global ambitions.
And global accolades have since defined his glittering career. These include being crowned the first African dancer to win the European Star Dance Union World Championships in the solo jazz category in Croatia (2011) and top dancer globally by the New York based Talent America Showcase (2013). And despite his globetrotting vocation, he says he always remembers his ancestral origins in Molototsi valley.
"Losing my grandmother (Queen Modjadji V) and my cousin, Makobo, (Queen Modjadji VI) was not easy. I'm currently working on a dance piece that will serve as an ode to them," he reveals. Paul Modjadji after being crowned the overall winner at the Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards in Cape Town last month. Paul Modjadji has mastered many dance styles, including ballet, hip-hop and isipantsula. Paul Modjadji during a break on the set of Hear Me Move, Africa's first dance film.