Pantsula, Pantsula, Pantsula

Photographs by Chris Saunders
Words by Daniela Goeller

“Pantsula is everything to me and everything is pantsula: I dress pantsula, I walk pantsula — I even talk pantsula”

Sello Modiga, Real Actions Pantsula, Orange Farmsula, Orange Farm

In the late 1970s, a new subculture took shape in the townships of South Africa. Young fashionistas began dressing up in expensive American and European labels and parading through the streets, treading carefully along dusty dirt roads to preserve their immaculate white socks and fine leather shoes. The subculture became known as “pantsula”, supposedly derived from a Zulu word that describes sticking out one’s buttocks or waddling like a duck.

A decade later, in the late 1980s, pantsula emerged as a powerful dance style, inspired by the gestures and movements of these stylish youth. A blend of traditional and modern dance combined with exaggerated everyday gestures, pantsula is an entertaining form of storytelling that includes mime, clowning, acrobatics and magic tricks. Some of the core movements referenced the fashionista’s walking. For young people growing up in the final days of apartheid, pantsula became their main form of expression in a time of great political instability.  

According to its dancers, pantsula can trace its roots back to the 1940s and Sophiatown, a multiracial suburb of Johannesburg known as “little Paris”, “little Harlem” or the “Chicago of South Africa” that is renowned for its international heritage and being home to elite writers, jazz musicians and some notorious gangsters. With these influences, and its connections to Marabi music and the illicit shebeen drinking bars, pantsula became known as the “dance of thugs”.

Via Vyndal, a pantsula crew from Alexandra, chose their name (a distortion of “vandal”) with reference to the bad reputation that sticks to the youth of their township. When performing, they adopt the same dress-code as the gangsters, because they like the style, but do not associate with violence. As Sandile Nqulunga explains, “We want to show people that dressing in a certain way doesn’t make you a bad person: we are artists and we like to entertain people”.

Pantsula is a culture of hustling, engaging wit and skill. “Pantsula is about survival,” says Vusi Mdoyi, a dancer from Katlehong; “like when a cat falls on its feet from high up, absorbing the shock in its body and in its bones.” The dance is fast, highly energetic and extremely challenging. It requires long hours of training and daily practice. Becoming a member of a crew provides many talented and unemployed young people with a structure in life, as well as some income. The leaders of pantsula are respected in their communities for taking the youth off the streets and giving them a sense of belonging. As the dominant urban dance form in South Africa, pantsula has reached theatre stages and street-dance festivals around the world. Online, the catchphrase is PANTSULA 4LYF — with LYF standing for “Live Your Freedom”.