SEATTLE — After 20 years of teaching ballet to impoverished South African children, Fiona Sargeant’s ballet classroom finally became her ballet company. Officially founded in 2016, Dancescape South Africa is a nonprofit that has nurtured talent and hope in equal parts, thanks to Sargeant’s dedication and unwavering belief in the power of dance.
“I am 16 years old and I love dancing because it is my gift,” says company senior dancer Lutho Zwendala. A gift that so easily could have lain undiscovered without the devotion of a humanitarian like Sargeant.[hr_invisible]
Sargeant, born in Wolverhampton, England, trained as a ballerina in London. Her career spanned 15 years, taking her throughout the U.K. and eventually to South Africa. There, she became involved in the Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB) Ballet and the non-profit organization Dance For All.
Through the support of CAPAB, Dance For All (formerly Ballet For All) was founded in 1991 to continue the work of the late David Poole, a dancer, teacher and longtime contributor to the ballet community of Cape Town. Dance For All provided dance education to the young people of poverty-stricken townships in Cape Town, and it provided Fiona Sargeant with her calling.[hr_invisible]
“Teacher Fiona” Creates Choices
Through Dance For All, Sargeant began cultivating the rest of her life’s work. She taught in townships like Khayelitsha and Montagu, and landed ultimately in Zolani, Western Cape, the future home of Dancescape Sout Africa. Sergeant received multiple service awards for her contributions to the dance community, and achieved a teaching certificate with the Royal Academy of Dance.
While the goal was to help children find a path away from the trappings of poverty like drugs, gangs and unemployment, the tutelage of “Teacher Fiona” accomplished much more. Several of her students went on to train with prominent dance academies; some even became professional dancers.
Dancescape South Africa introduces the performing arts not only as a new activity to the rural poor of Western Cape, but as a potential career choice as well:
- Former student Mthuthulezi “Tutu” November is now a member of the South African dance company Ballet Black. November credits Sargeant, from whom he received his nickname, for showing him what life could be like as a dancer by taking students to as many performances as possible.
- Siphe November, Tutu’s younger brother, trains at Canada’s National Ballet School. He began training with Sargeant in the township of Zolani at the age of seven.
- Professional dancer Noluyanda “Nolly” Mqulwana was Sargeant’s student in the Khayelitsha township. Now Dancescape South Africa’s patron, Mqulwana’s credits include multiple dance companies and tours in Singapore, Hamburg, Salzburg, New York and London.
- Senior Dancescape South Africa Lihle Mfene is training to become a teacher himself and, in 2016, received a full scholarship to perform in the U.S. Mfene says Sargeant was “like my mother, like my real mom.”
Sargeant was diagnosed with terminal cancer in early 2016. The students’ beloved Teacher Fiona died a year later, in September 2017.
In the weeks following her diagnosis, Sargeant’s husband, Mitya, took steps to preserve Fiona’s wish that the school would go on after she was gone. He registered for official nonprofit organization status under the new name Dancescape South Africa. In the meantime, facilities were running further down and funds were beginning to dry up.
In her final months, the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen (GISHWHES) got ahold of the story of Sargeant and Dancescape South Africa. Headed by actor Misha Collins, GISHWES partnered with Random Acts and decided their goal for fundraising in 2017 would be to save the school.
In August 2017, weeks before her death, GISHWHES and Random Acts presented Fiona with a check for $200,000. Raised by hundreds of citizens across the globe, the donated funds ensured the school’s survival.[hr_invisible]
“Don’t Forget to Shine”
The life and continued legacy of Fiona Sargeant have given hope to countless young people for over two decades. Her dedication changed the trajectory of lives seemingly bound by the limits of extreme poverty.
Lihle Mfene recalls Fiona’s words to him before leaving for America: “’Don’t forget to stay refined!’” he says with a laugh. Then, smiling, he adds, “’And don’t forget to shine.’ That’s the one thing she would say, every time. ‘Don’t forget to shine.’”
– Jaymie Greenway