LGP Stories

Personal Stories from DLGP

Learning to Dance

Written by: on July 7, 2018

A few days into our trip to Cape Town, after touring the District Six Museum, we have a 45-minute wait for the bus that will take us back to the hotel. Not wanting to stand around, my friend Trisha and I set out to explore the neighbourhood. We happen upon the Cape Town Central Library, which to a couple of bibliophile doctoral students is about the equivalent of children happening upon a playground. With both delight and reverence, we enter.

I anticipate wandering through stacks of books, noting which languages are prevalent, which topics are predominant, and which local authors are celebrated. But serendipitously, just as we enter the building, a small men’s choral group starts singing. We follow the sound of their voices, grab our phones, and start recording.

For those in the library, it was simply a mini-concert by a musical group with great showmanship, a reality that reminds me of the fact that what I view as “ethnographic footage” might simply be a video of a choral performance.[1] But I can’t shake the sense that these images have something important to tell me about the broader culture of Cape Town.

I’m particularly drawn to the segment where the lead singer dances with two different female spectators. The differences between the two women are striking. The first woman is older, the second is younger; the first is black, the second is white; the first is wearing traditional garb, the second is in shorts and a T-shirt; the first moves fluidly, the second looks awkward. In her book Visual Ethnography, Sarah Pink says that when analysing images for ethnographic purposes, “we might think of the ways that meanings can be layered…building on and perhaps contesting each other….”[2]

Might such layers be seen here?

On the surface, the young black singer is putting on a good show, bringing his audience into the experience by inviting two women to dance with him as he sings. I assume the dancing is done in fun, without premeditation or ulterior motives. But is there another layer through which we might view this dance? Could it stand as a visual representation of the fragile state of race relations in South Africa? In the video, as in the culture, so many juxtapositions hang precariously in the balance—while Apartheid has officially been dismantled, ongoing struggles with racism, income disparity, and corruption remain firmly intact.

The singers bridge an obvious but unspoken gap, walking an ambiguous intercultural tightrope. While they sing in a tribal language and move their bodies in traditional dance moves, they are dressed in modern Western garb and introducing their songs in English. They reach out to an older black woman and then to a younger white woman, singing and dancing all the while.

A few days later, when we spend an afternoon at the J L Zwane Presbyterian Church in Guguletu, Wilhelm Verwoerd does a similar dance, figuratively speaking. Bearing the surname of his grandfather, Hendrik Verwoerd (aka “the architect of apartheid”), Wilhelm works to dismantle the divisions his grandfather designed. He builds bridges where his grandfather built boundaries. And with dignity and grace, Wilhelm stands in the midst of the tension without flinching.

With a rare mix of courage and humility, Wilhelm dances the tricky jig of owning white privilege without clinging to it. Of criticizing his ancestors without disowning them. Of speaking comfort to both the oppressor and the oppressed. And he does it with charm and sincerity. His life challenges the status quo. He is a picture of the future.

I, too, am learning to live in that tension. As a USAmerican living in France, I must find ways to embrace criticism of my fellow USAmericans (Trump?!? Are you kidding me?!?) without disowning them. It’s awkward to occupy that space, and challenging to do so with the courage and humility that Wilhem Verwoerd embodied. Yet, this is the wobbly space to which I am called.

But the truth is, that space is uncomfortable. It’s much easier to dwell in the USAmerican bubble, as many missionaries do, or to never invite strangers in, as many natives do. But as the Reverend Michelle Boonzaaier reminded us, leadership is “embodied presence in very uncomfortable places.”[3] This is what these young singers did, and this is what the women did, too, in getting up to dance. The first crosses an age boundary, dancing with a much younger man. The second crosses a race boundary, dancing with a black man. And the fact that it all took place in a library—a place known for silence and stillness more than music and dancing—only serves to underline the liminalty of the space. As a person who wants to be willing to cross boundaries, even when it feels awkward, I was inspired by the willingness of both women to leave the comfort of their group to enter into the fringes of the dance. They give me a picture of what it means to be an “embodied presence.”

The video of their performance has become for me “an ambiguous image that both imitate[s] and challenge[s]” the status quo.[4] Apartheid wounds still sting, while new wounds continue to be inflicted. Even those who are willing to “dance together” do so tentatively. And yet, by dancing together, they challenge the belief that reconciliation is impossible.


[1] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 3rd edition (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2013). 149.

[2] Pink,105. Pink explains that there is no video footage that can be considered “purely ethnographic.” Images that I believe portray some special cultural experience may simply be just a mundane part of normal human interaction

[3] Michelle Boonzaaier, Cape Town, SA, September 23, 2017

[4] Pink. 148.


About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

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