It was at the age of nine that Washington Ballet dancer Andile Ndlovu first fell in love with dance: not as a performer, but as a spectator. His sister regularly participated in local dance competitions in his native Johannesburg, and at the time, Ndlovu “used to just hang out,” he recalls, “but I would never dance.”
It was only once he was asked to fill in for an absent dancer that his sister’s teacher approached him and conveyed that she had glimpsed in him a talent for the art form. Ndlovu quickly says that dance began to feel like “a place where (he) belonged.”
He quickly branched out from Latin American and ballroom to modern and eventually ballet, as his teacher said, “was the only way to show people that you’re serious about what you do.” After his first big show, at 2 p.m., Ndlovu saw “the love from the audience and the whole atmosphere.”
“I loved it,” he says. “That made me happy.”
Now in his ninth season with the Washington Ballet, Ndlovu has embraced two very different dance cultures. In South Africa, he says within his Zulu community, “we dance when we mourn; we dance when we celebrate. We dance when we are happy. We always dance! ”
It is an experience that stands in stark contrast to his first brushes with ballet. After all, alongside his teacher’s encouragement, Ndlovu remembers people who tried to dissuade him from embracing the “Western style”, where they said he would not be welcome.
“The ballet culture is to maintain a uniform color or maintain a uniform look,” he says. “It’s not really a sustainable way to produce dance, because dance is just dance. It does not really belong to a culture or belongs to a color or belongs to a language. ”
Black dancers have been strong in calling the racist policies that permeate the world of ballet, such as being asked to wear white makeup to shows like Swan Lake. And while the ballet world is taking steps to embrace dancers who once quite literally would have been in the wings (in 2019, six-year-old Charlotte Nebres became the first black dancer cast as Marie in New York City Ballets The Nutcracker), Says Ndlovu, “we are not there yet.”
Despite still having work to diversify ballet, he says, “I think I just never thought about all that.”
“I was very dedicated and diligent,” he says. “I did not look at all the loud noises.”
He has certainly hit his stride in the multicultural capital, where he can not only take full advantage of his position within the Washington Ballet, but also of instructors and facilities in Mount Rainier that allow him to practice cultural dance.
“We have so many different cultures in America, in the DC area,” he says. “The diaspora in DC is so big that I did not feel out of place.”
With home bookings last year, he had to get creative with his workouts and routines. Instead of his regular gym visits, he “took everything outdoors” and was regularly on public running tracks in Bethesda and choreographed from home. And now that the city has reopened, he is back at work, preparing a new choreography for his debut in October and immersing himself in what he loves most about his adopted city: its art scene.
“Washington is sprinkled everywhere with different kinds of art. And that’s what I like to do, ”he says. “I like to do something that I’m not a part of.”
Art in all its innumerable forms has thus at once become his inspiration and his favorite leisure activity.
“I placed myself in places where I can experience a Japanese artist showing their art, an Iranian musician or an Iranian folk dancer or a Russian spoken word artist, even though I do not understand it, but just because I am there.”
“I love curiosity because I’m curious,” he continues. “So it’s that curiosity, I think, that really drives me. And when I find another person who is very curious, I try to talk to them and hear what they have to say. ”
Below, Ndlovu shares his favorite places to mingle and mingle with other creatives in DC
National Museum of African Art
This museum is home to 9,000 works of modern and traditional African art. It’s one of Ndlovu’s favorite places in DC, “just because of the artistry of it all. How they put it together and what’s inside. ”
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Ndlovu is attracted to the National Museum of Modern Art thanks to its interest in art history. “I love learning the history of art, and then I like to know how it progressed,” he explains. “And so contemporary museums, I love them for it. Because they are very exploratory and they are trying to find new voices trying to say something. ”
The eastern market
Capitol Hill’s Eastern Market is a DC destination for local, farm food. But for Ndlovu, it has yet another draw. “You get to see what we call America,” he says. “The difference and the vast majority of different cultures in one room.”
This article was featured in InsideHook DC newsletter. Sign up now for more from Beltway.