Magic Hats: Dancing in the Streets of Soweto

February 3, 2014

On a visit to the Soweto street that was once home to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, filmmaker Jake Sumner recorded a stunning performance by local contortionist dance duo Skeleton Pantsula Crew.

Jake Sumner/Alldayeveryday, Magic Hats, 2013.

I made Magic Hats last year, while I was in South Africa on a job. On our last day in the country, the film crew and I visited Soweto before our flight. Soweto has fascinated me from afar, as an extraordinary cultural hub that is home to so many great leaders, thinkers, musicians and footballers. The video came about accidentally as we walked along Vilakazi Street, once home to both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Unsurprisingly, most tourists end up there when visiting the township.

Walking down Vilakazi Street, we noticed two hats spinning in the air in the distance. Not sure what we were seeing, we approached two men who were in the midst of a dance routine, contorting their bodies in ways I didn’t think possible. The sequence culminated with the duo keeping their hats afloat for miraculous lengths of time, using only breath.

It was one of those special and simple acts that I think can resonate with just about anybody. It still makes me happy every time I see it—and at this point I’ve seen it hundreds of times. The two men introduced themselves as Jabu and JR, adding that they were known as the Skeleton Pantsula Crew. Jabu told us, “This dance is called skeleton pantsula, and we’re the only two that do it.” Their routine is a hybrid of contortion, magic tricks and pantsula, a style of dancing that developed in South African townships in the 1970s and has since become part of the national culture. Many variations of pantsula exist; it is customary for dancers to add their own unique spin to this tradition.

I told Jabu and JR that we should make a film, and they agreed. So we grabbed the camera from our car, went around the corner to a quieter street and began to shoot. They told us more about themselves: “We were born and bred in White City (Jabavu), Soweto. We started dancing around schools, near train stations and in Soweto taverns. Dancing is a career for us. The passion we have drives us to be better with each day.” The duo has performed on Vilakazi Street since 2006, when Jabu and JR realized how many tourists frequented the street. For me their act was a chance encounter with two unbelievable performers whom we were lucky enough to capture on video.