Dance That Spans Continents: Tumelo Michael Moloi Interviewed

A group of individuals dressed in all black, in a blur of motion, gather before a camera on a pedestrian bridge.
Michale Moloi, Black Lives Matter, 2021 (video still). Poem performance, video. 3:47.

Tumelo Michael Moloi is a Eugene, Oregon-based award-winning dance pioneer. Combining extensive training of South African dance styles gumboot and pantsula with modern tap dancing, Moloi developed a new form called “Tap Pantsula.” This new dance form incorporates steps, sound, clapping, clicking, and shouting, adapted for traditional South African music on the marimba, a xylophone-like instrument developed across Sub-Saharan Africa. 

For ten years, Moloi served as the creative choreographer and catalyst for the Via Katlehong dance troupe throughout his native South Africa and across the world, introducing regional South African history through incorporating fashion, breakdance, mime, music, and narratives/storytelling. In November 2003, Moloi performed for a concert hosted by Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, South Africa, raising awareness of the spread of HIV/AIDS in the region. 

In December 2006, Tumelo Michael Moloi joined Cirque du Soleil, the world’s most famous acrobatic troupe. He played the “Sugar Plum Fairy” in the troupe’s Beatles “LOVE” show for ten years. In 2016, Moloi moved to a small farm outside of Eugene, Oregon. His purpose ever since has been to bring his South African roots to the Pacific Northwest and beyond, seeking to share a distinct locomotive art as a creative language that encourages universal communication, opening the world to the people of a region. 

I corresponded with Moloi in November 2021 as The Living Art, his newest show, years in production, finally commenced after almost two years of pandemic-related delays. We were also able to chat about Moloi’s video installation at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art’s Black Lives Matter Artist Grant Program exhibition, on view from July 3–October 31, 2021. —Matthew Denis

Matthew Denis The Living Art, brings together traditional South African dance, music, and storytelling. Where and how did this work come about?

Michael Moloi This work started five years ago, right before leaving my contract with Cirque Du Soleil. The Living Art is a story that can be told in many art forms—a visual art gallery and performance at the same time. It felt true to use music, dance, and stories that relate to me and my origins.  

Talking about what I know was the easy part. Making this make sense to the public took a little time and practice. I always looked at a picture or visual art as a performance, and with The Living Art, a picture is a performance and performance is a picture.

If I take pictures of people dancing and put them in a gallery, they become visual art. Every movement a performer does is a raw picture. The images are not posed, they are what they are: raw images of an artist’s feelings.  

A person with wide-eyes leans out of frame, their hands in front of their face, the background dark—as on a stage.
Michael Moloi, Gumboots, 2018 (video still). Film. 16:43.

MD How did you use visual art in concert with performance in The Living Art?

MM I am happy I tried this way of speaking. My art speaks of cultures, tribes, and colors. I used acrylic paints in my paintings to speak about different cultures to tell their own story—Native American, Black American, and African tribes. Everyone connects to it in their own way.

I had more than forty paintings displayed in the space. Painting made me aware that I didn’t have to dance to tell my story. When I perform, it sometimes seems like people feel and want to take back my story with them. With visual art, they can.

The performance had live music, story telling, poetry, and dance with Joshua Caraco playing kora from Senegal, John Mambira playing drums from Zimbabwe, Ratie D playing Mbira from Senegal, and John Page playing violin. 

The story of Apartheid in South Africa is sad, but I wanted the background to be emotionally happy, and spiritually and culturally free. We dressed in our cultural clothing, sang tribal songs, and performed with and for all people of color. With microphones, cables, drums, string instruments, Black people dancing and singing, you can feel the sweat, pain, and joy in this image. Our last song was a perfect mirror to that image as we made people sing with us. 

MD Why is this storytelling integral to this show? 

MM Storytelling is for educational purposes—something for the public to take home and think about. We share our stories, culture, what and who we are, our history. My philosophy is: the only way to break fear is to know and understand. Fear does not exist in knowing and people need to know. We can live in peace only when we know and understand each other. 

The image of a person dancing, smiling, is superimposed over a closeup of another person's face.
Michael Moloi, Gumboots, 2018 (video still). Film. 16:43.

MD You’ve brought your art to the Pacific Northwest, thousands of miles away from where you were raised. What do you hope that people learn from these stories?

MM Even in difficult times, there is a greater power, responsibility, and love in stories that needs to be shared for the greater good. 

I was born under Apartheid but Apartheid didn’t make me—it taught me my responsibility to teach others. I hope that people can see the world through other people’s eyes and experiences. 

MD What is your ideal audience size and why is it essential for you to educate while performing?

MM A small crowd is always an idea for me because I can send a message clearer and quicker. When I perform for a small crowd, I connect with them not just with the eyes but the inner eye. I always plant seeds for people to take home and think about. 

MD How has the pandemic affected your message to broaden perspectives in the Pacific Northwest by bringing South African art to the forefront? 

MM The pandemic gave me a chance to clear my mind for creativity. Like many artists, we couldn’t pay bills for two years. We needed to recreate ourselves or look for different ways of making a living. Personally, I found myself painting more than dancing. 

MD How did you connect with other Africans to bring The Living Art to the world and why is it critical for you to create opportunity for these brethren?

MM We share the same struggle, know the same stories, and embrace the same culture. We already did the hard part of wanting and arriving here in the United States. The easy part is putting all our skill, talent, and stories together and sharing them with our audience. Personally, I am tired of waiting for someone to do that for me. Or call me to perform for almost no pay. 

MD You’ve traveled the world performing and creating dance. How does dance, for you, represent the world? 

MM Dance is like music, it is universal, it creates waves all humankind can surf. We connect and understand each other through music and dance and most of the time we don’t even have to speak. We use the language of the body and that is a freedom that all humankind has.

Michale Moloi, Black Lives Matter, 2021. Poem performance, video. 3:47.

MD How did you meld South African elements into your video performance for the 2021 Black Lives Matter video at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art?

MM The struggle of Black people for me started in South Africa. I have seen the tears of my grandmother growing up and felt the suffering of my mom. It was important that I plug in gumboot and pantsula dance because they are two dance forms that were created during hard times. Pantsula, particularly, was created to fight the government but most importantly, to tell South African stories to the world. We need to go all the way back because this problem we are facing today is not new. We always had it. 

MD That’s interesting. Gumboot, which began in the early- to mid-twentieth century, was a secret, coded language spoken by miners by slapping their gumboots. Pantsula, which followed in the 1980s, was an evolution of this social dance in that it was also a language of resistance, but much more conspicuous, performed by youth on streets across the country. Why is it important to you to present these traditional South African dances to Western audiences?

MM Gumboot and pantsula were created during times of Apartheid, when the government was the minority. This resulted in chaos, broken families, and lost lives. For me it is a question more than an answer. The question is: what are we doing and where are we going as humans in this world?

Apartheid as law in South Africa finished in 1994. We are here in the US in 2022, and yet we still face similar problems with segregation, injustice, and police brutality. The reason why I teach is to open people’s way of thinking and spread the idea that the world is bigger than all of us. For us to live in it, we have to value each other’s beliefs, cultural differences and learn from each other. 

Three side-by-side video stills of individuals wearing all black dancing on a pedestrian bridge.
Michale Moloi, Black Lives Matter, 2021 (video still). Poem performance, video. 3:47.

MD What’s the origin for the poem in  your video for the Jordan Schnitzer Art Museum’s Black Lives Matter Artist Grant Program exhibition?

MM When I wrote the poem, I was in a dark place. The idea of taking a life that you claim to serve and protect never made sense to me. I am not saying all law men are bad. What I am saying is that there is a moment of reason that needs to happen before the trigger is pulled. This goes to people in general. 

I wrote the poem through the eye of someone whose life was stuck between life and death. In the poem, this person is trying to make sense of their life and how it comes to this dark place and silence. It almost feels good that it is silent with no noise, but  how to get there is the question. 

MD As if dying is preferable to living with such brutal injustice?

MM In pain, suffering and fear there is no growth, there is no life. The only time life is fully-lived is when it is at peace with itself. 

MD How do you incorporate these lines into your choreography? 

MM This is a collective work with other artists. Artists always tell stories through their art. How do we tell the story without pointing fingers at other people? By simply saying, “Open the window and see what is happening.” 

The lines are important and relevant. I have two daughters that I want to see grow up without fear, have opportunities, to be looked at the same way as others and be free in their idea in building their life. 

We spoke about how dangerous daily life can be for a Black man wearing black hoodie. This is a danger in any country, but mostly in the US, being Black is powerful and provoking. 

MD We witnessed an entire summer of protests to voice this frustration in 2020. Do you feel like there has been positive change in the past year and a half? Do you feel resistance to that change?  

MM Things will change—no doubt about that—but it’s going to take more effort from our leaders, educators, and from inside our homes.

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