Toyi!Toyi! at the Dance Umbrella

The cross continental dance piece Toyi!Toyi! focuses on life in South Africa and is showcasing at this years Dance Umbrella.

TOWNSHIP STORIES: Toyi!Toyi! is now showing at this years Dance Umbrella Festival. Photo: Michelle Gumede

TOWNSHIP STORIES: Toyi!Toyi! is now showing at this years Dance Umbrella Festival. Photo: Michelle Gumede


Toyi! Toyi! is a protest dance piece about the struggles and triumphs of growing up in township South Africa. Based on the testimonies of four young South African men, the performance incorporates local and global dance styles to bring to the stage the story of life in the townships of South Africa.

“It is almost every black child’s story who grew up in SA townships,” says Vusi Mdoyi of the Via Katlehong dance group.

With protests erupting in every corner of the country, this piece is serendipitously titled. Toyi! Toyi! is the South African word for protest action, and people in the township know all too well of the struggles that often lead to toyi toying.

For Mdoyi, the meaning of Toyi! Toyi! can be found in their struggles, their individual, artistic and communal lives and mostly in how they survive

Arranged by French choreographer Hamid Ben Mahi in collaboration with Mdoyi, Steven Faleni and Buru Mohlabane from Via Katlehong and Martinique-born Frederick Faula from French company Horserie, Toyi! Toyi! focuses on the lives of these dancers and their individual stories that took place during their teenage years in our townships.

“I wanted to show them as they really are, with their stories, their sincerity, their humanity, their simplicity and their dances,” says Mahi.

Using IsiPantsula, gumboots and Hip Hop in a more contemporary artistic theatre approach, coupled with free movement that is inspired by real life experience, the piece has a strong sense of the streets. Mixed with chanting and struggle song, the performers use various elements to guide audiences to understand the story behind the movements in the piece.

The performers use these proudly South African conventions so people can easily identify with the dialect. Mdoyi says he wants audiences to discover more about themselves, “mostly to respect what belongs to their backyards,” he says.

Being from different parts of the world, the choreographer and dancers have had to learn to work together in a way that compliments both their unique styles.

Mdoyi says learning from each other challenged them, “We have different styles, bodies, energy and approach. We had to as well find an artistic theatre approach to cover the international audience.”

It’s not every day that local performers work with an international artist, particularly in the medium of dance. The idea of this collaboration with dancers from Via Katlehong Dance was born during the choreographic parade in the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2013. Hamid says after this experience in South Africa, they did a European tour that took them through Ireland, Portugal and France.

“We wanted to continue to work together, and I had the idea,” Mahi says.

Toyi! Toyi! has since been staged in Europe in 2014 and 2015. But for Mdoyi, cross cultural artistic exchange projects always help performers to think out of their comfort zone.

“Arts help us to discover ourselves through the eyes of the universe and it is very important to reconnect with the world,” Mdoyi says.

Mahi admits that the individual experiences of the Via Katlehong group were really very different from anything he had ever experienced back home in France.

“It was also very important for me to show to the world, to French public, what the Toyi! Toyi! is. This is a special movement, which was born in South Africa, which is directly related to its history.”