A Nigerian actress and dancer is inspiring growing numbers of people in South Africa to get up dance. Vera Ephraim is also an award-winning choreographer, having collaborated with a host of celebrated African musicians, including South Africa’s Hugh Masekela and Nigeria’s Femi Kuti. Darren Taylor has more from Johannesburg.
A lithe woman, Ephraim, clad in a turquoise vest and wide, patterned pants shouts instructions inside a studio in Johannesburg. Her thick, black curls glisten with sweat as she explains how she began her unique mission here about a year ago.
“I had a lot of encouragement from a group of friends who said, ‘Vera, you know, can you start a dance class; I really want to know what Western African dance looks like, what it sounds like; what it feels like; how is it different from southern African movement?”
Ephraim says West African dancers use a lot of hip movement and dance with their whole bodies. In what she calls a “harvesting dance,” her students hurl their bodies forward while their arms scrape the floor.
“If you’re harvesting, your arms are plucking the apples or your arms are digging up the yams from the soil,” she explains.
Ephraim also fuses more modern African music with djembe drums to “spice things up” for her students. She explains that the dances she teaches have story lines.
“This dance is from Ghana; it’s for marriage. And this movement here signifies the girl is being shy, the girl is being shy; she’s shaking the shoulder. And then this is the guy posing like, ‘I see you; I’m coming over,’ ” she tells her students.
Ephraim’s dancers are a diverse bunch, from domestic workers to rich businessmen to Emi Kawamura, an administrator for a Japanese car company.
“Even if we are just a beginner, even if we don’t know the technique, we can always enjoy [the dance classes],” Kawamura says.