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South African Dancers and Musicians Tour US in 'Gumboots' - 2001-02-10

Historically, gold has fueled much of South Africa's wealth. For more than a century, blacks were forced to toil in the mines under near-slave conditions. The mining experience spawned gumboot dancing, an art form that can still be seen and heard today. A stage production called "Gumboots," featuring 12 South African dancers and musicians, is touring the United States.

Take the raw, percussive energy of the smash theater production "Stomp," add the intricate harmonies of the a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, throw in a compelling story of human endurance and suffering, and you have something approaching the mesmerizing brilliance of "Gumboots."

The performers, known as the Rishile Gumboot Dancers of Soweto, dazzle with their nimble feet and with their soulful vocal chords.

The show's narrator and one of the dancers, Vincent Ncabashe, says "Gumboots" stands as a tribute to those who worked and often died underground, never benefiting from the fruits of their labors yet struggling to find some meaning in their daily existence.

"There is a mix of joy and pain," he said. "That's because when we dance we think about the mineworkers. They used to work under the apartheid system, forced to work in the mines. They were chained and forbidden to speak. They were like slaves. We think about them, and those who got sick, and those who died when disaster struck."

The word "gumboots" refers to the heavy rubber boots issued to the workers. Toiling in darkness and often separated by language, they developed a unique, rhythmic form of communication by stomping and slapping their boots, and rattling the chains that bound them. Over the decades, the practice evolved into a dance form that spread beyond the mining camps and into South Africa's black townships. It survives today, outliving the oppressive system that brought about its creation.

The "Gumboots" cast has replaced chains with strings of bottle caps that rattle with every step they take. But they still sport bare chests, workers' pants and bandannas, as did the miners of yesteryear.

Most of the performers grew up in Soweto and met each other at a youth center, where they were encouraged to sing, dance and write poetry. Dancer Nicholas Nene says in the 1970's and '80's, the height of apartheid, it was good to be off the streets. He said, "It was so hard when we were running around the streets of Johannesburg during those times. I was so young. In the schools, it was bad for me. Around our community, many things were bad -- the crime, the police. That's why I joined the youth center, because I thought that it was a place where things would be all right."

The dancers' skills eventually drew the attention of a music director who set up performances for the troupe in South Africa and, eventually, abroad. In addition to the United States, the Rishile Gumboot Dancers of Soweto have performed to enthusiastic audiences in Britain, Belgium, Australia and Hong Kong.

A long, busy touring schedule has separated cast members from loved ones. At one point in the show, they hold up pictures of their wives and girlfriends and gaze at them lovingly, just as mineworkers of old must have done during months of uninterrupted labor.

But they say they are thrilled with the success of the production and hope to bring their dance and song to many more countries in the months ahead.