Martha Graham, an American modern dancer and choreographer once said “Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are great because of their passion.”
For many dancers in Zimbabwe, dance is not all about passion but money, and both have left the dancers at the mercy of many vultures and predators.
One cannot help but notice the skimpy outfits as the girls gyrate to the sounds of Tongai Moyo. The girls dance barefoot on a seemingly cold concrete stage, much to the applause of the male dominated crowd.
It’s evident that most men are salivating over the scantily dressed ladies, and when the set is done, one of the ladies walks across the room to a small table tucked in the corner.
On the table sits three men, who until now seemed less bothered by the ladies; one of the men at the table is quick to hug the dancer and seems to whisper a few words that send her into a bolt of laughter.
She grabs a cigarette from him; looks at it suggestively before she pulls at it as if her life depends on it and all this while, the man is tenderly caressing her back, the dancer seems less bothered.
Such scenes have been witnessed in many bars that are entertained by dance groups, the dancers are at the mercy of patrons that seem to look at them as sexual objects and take turns to try their luck.
Around 2005, Enisa Mashusha formed an all female dance group called Mambokadzi that quickly became popular securing slots at almost every bar in Harare.
This was to be the beginning era that saw hundreds of teenagers, mostly from Bulawayo moving to Harare as the dance industry grew, soon names like Banyana Bafana, Explosion, Yizo Yizo, Amigos and Casabalanca took over the industry and they entertained many with their supple dances.
The unknown reality of the industry however is disheartening, with most getting a remuneration that has thrown them below the poverty datum line. Most groups are paid fees ranging from US$30 TO US$40 for a four hour slot, with each one getting about US$5 per show that must cover food and transport till the next slot.
Dancers work odd hours and hardly get rest between their work and other responsibilities and it is mostly the women dancers that have been more exposed to the evils of the performing arts industry.
Some have labeled the industry a one big ‘sex’ industry but the reality is that most dancers suffer emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of fellow dancers, patrons, bar managers and owners.
In most cases their plight has not been addressed because even in the societies they live, they have been labeled ‘prostitutes’, ‘husband snatchers’ amongst many other degrading names.
For Heather Salesman,a dance group leader; her chosen career has brought more pain than thrills for her and fellow dancers.
“It’s painful, many people see us as sex objects. Most patrons have a tendency of jumping on stage trying to lay their hands on us, some even go as far as spanking us when they wish, we are just dancers looking to entertain patrons, get paid and take care of our families” said Salesman.
With five years experience in the industry, she revealed that a lot of dancers are abused and many have no option but to give in because they want to earn a living.
“ I have lost count of how many managers, and even owners have asked us for sexual favours in return for gigs at their bars, and some girls agree because we need these shows,” she added.
“Many girls complaining that the boys in mixed groups demand sex in return for favours, some even use sex as an “interview”, this is why you see that most girls are never with one group for a long time, they will be running away from such abuse from the boys “she further explained.
The plight of female dancers is also made worse by so called fans who take advantage of these girls to have forced sex with them in exchange for money and in most cases leave them after they fall pregnant.
The phenomena of “Stapulas”, has seen many girls falling prey to cunning individuals.
“Stapulas” are a close circle of men that attend almost every function spoiling the girls with beer, food and even other necessary supplies like transport, uniforms e.t.c.
The stapulas end up taking advantage of their financial muscle and demanding sex from the dancers and many dancers find it hard to turn down the advances. The financial support the dancers get is way more than what they earn from their profession.
“Stapula’s are like our fans, they follow the group everywhere and they have money, they buy everyone drinks, some of them are just there for fun but some want to take you home for sex after the show, its difficult to say no, haurambe , unenge wadya mari yake .” (You can’t say no, because you have been accepted their money.)
“Even some regular patrons at a bar might buy you a beer during performance then they demand sex afterwards, some offer money for sex and many become violent if you refuse” says another dancer who preferred anonymity.
Many dancers have fallen victim to these “stapulas”, but sadly most of them believe they have no other means to survive so they have to put up with their “occupational hazards”.
Speaking on behalf of Dancers Association of Zimbabwe (DAZ), Hapaguti “Hapaz” Mapimhidze warned against abuse of dancers.
“People should understand that dancers just dance and offer no other service.. I must warn against such abuse from all stake holders, anyone involved in this must know that we have reports and names and soon the long arm of the law will catch up with them “declared Mapimhidze.
Mapimhidze revealed that the association has been hosting awareness campaigns on sex education and abuse with the last having been hosted in the Harare recently.
Mapimhidze also urged dancers to maintain a professional image during and after performances.
“Dancers must strive to be professional and desist from the habit of mingling with fans at gigs, they should just stay backstage or in the changing room until their slot is done,” he added.
It is however difficult for the dancers to separate performing on the stage and mingling with fans, because sometimes both come together as a package.
Social Analyst and University of Johannesburg Research fellow Admire Mare attributes the abuse to female sexualisation and the harsh economic conditions.
“This is a product of the patriarchal socialisation which somehow contributes to the sexualisation and objectification of women in the dancing industry. Our society often views women who go to clubs and bars as trespassers into the male domain” said Mare.
Anoziva Marindire, an activist at Girls Speak Out & founder of Paradoka, called for the education and regulation of the industry as a way of reigning in the abuse.
“Like any other industry there must be policies put in place that protect women from abuse, and these establishments that host dancers must be mandated to have the policies as a matter of law and perpetrators must be reported to authorities” said Anoziva Marindire.
She also called for the law to be enforced without fear and favour to protect female dancers just like any workers.
They might dance all night with smiles, the heavy make-up might just be a cover , they drink and smoke like all is merry but behind the dancer is a troubled soul at the mercy of vultures disguised as patrons , fellow dancers , managers and fans.
Dancing needs to be viewed as a profession and the hazards associated with it should be considered. This means that the powers that be should provide policies that protect all women from potential abuse including professional dancers. It does not mean that because they work mostly in bars and night clubs, they should be subjected to forced sex and manipulation. Any sex that happens, transactional or not, should be based on consent.
There is need is need for awareness campaigns to sensitise dancers, bar owners, bouncers on gender based violence and sexual harassment as a matter of urgency.
In an effort to earn a living, and in the absence of any laws to protect them most professional dancers are dancing through agony.
Article written by Peter Tinashe Kaviya, a Harare based journalist with an undeniable passion for the arts and entertainment industry.
Main image, Mambokadzi dance group. Image taken from www.herald.co.zw