Young at heart and in spirit

Elsa Perez is living proof that age is just a number, as she dances her way around the world

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It is said that when one has a true passion in life, it is all-encompassing and is capable of giving you strength, energy and a never-ending drive and desire to showcase it to the world—and that certainly seems to be the case for Elsa Perez, a South African Londoner who is still inspiring many around the world.

A remarkable woman, Perez, through her dance classes, is inspiring others to share her passion and discover their dancing feet through an activity that she has loved since childhood.

“As most children do, when I was very young, I would just dance along by myself whenever music played. My father loved classical music so it was always playing in the house. My family didn’t have a lot of money so couldn’t pay for dance lessons for my sister and me at primary school, but we were lucky in that we were allowed to sit and watch the lessons, which we would then go home and replicate. We stole with our eyes and practised at home,” she laughs.

Her older cousin taught her to dance from the age of 12, culminating in performances in Sunday school concerts. At 13, her older cousin taught her to jive and do the samba, which she still loves today. From her father, Perez learnt to ballroom dance and at 13, she attended her first dance, where she danced with the members of the cricket club. At high school, she was part of a prize-winning Eurhythmics team, which incorporated various dances.

“As I progressed through high school, my love of dance and music was well-known and when I was about 17, I was asked to choreograph two dances for a production called Hiawatha (a piece of music that’s composed by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a black Englishman, who’s half Sierra Leonian and half English. I had to create a dance called ‘Spring’, which I danced down the steps of the City Hall from the back where the choir sat, down onto the stage and so on and the other one had to be an indigenous dance so I had to go to the Cape Town library and study all the moves that the indigenous people did and my mother made a beautiful costume,” she fondly remembers.

While studying to become a teacher at 18 years old, she started attending free dance classes as she could not afford professional lessons. “There was a woman named Gwen Michaels—from way, way back—who was a brilliant teacher and who did Indian and Flamenco dancing. So, I danced with her and also went to a professional Flamenco class. In those years, it was for whites only but I thought ‘oh well, they either kick me out or not’, and fortunately, they didn’t. They didn’t ask questions and they taught me, but no one was friendly to me. Regardless, I absolutely loved it. I also got to do some Indian dancing at the University of Cape Town at an event and it was great to be there. It was at this time that I started falling in love with dances from different cultures and wanting to experience more of them,” explains Perez.

She left South Africa in 1961 to study further. She trained as a teacher of maladjusted children at the London University although, by this stage, she had already been teaching for six years, with physical education, dance and puppetry very much a part of her work.

Soon after arriving in England, she got married and had children, and stopped dancing for a few years in order to concentrate on her family. During this time she continued to teach. “We had a wonderful organisation, the Greater London Education Authority, and teachers were given free time to go and study anything that we liked so I became a music teacher, as that was really my forte, and I did many classes in different kinds of music and dance as well,” says Perez.

She was a founding member of the London School of Samba in 1984 and continues to dance with them in the annual Notting Hill Carnival. She has done choreography for them in recent years.

“The Nottinghill Carnival happens in London every year in August, with thousands of people taking part in it. It’s like the Brazilian Rio Carnival—it’s all Samba. It has taken place in London for over 50 years and over two days attracts around a million people. It’s one of the world’s largest street festivals and, when I’m able to, I always take part in it, dancing in the street for hours.

“I remember the very first year my friend and I did it, we danced for seven hours—we were much younger then, I was about 60—and it was really an experience of a lifetime. Naturally, the next day was spent sleeping,” she laughs.

Perez studied all types of Cuban dance for about nine years and, with her husband, learnt the Argentine Tango, which remains one of her favourite dances. Another dance group that she works with is the Mandinga Carnival Arts Group, with whom she has participated in various parades and festivals including Gay Pride and the Mexican Day of the Dead, which will take place in November. “With its wonderful costumes and make-up, The Day of the Dead is one of the most visual and cultural festivals and we have danced for it many times. This year, I believe it’s going to be at the British Victoria and Albert Museum,” she says.

For Perez, dance is truly a universal language and she believes that one can definitely acquire a deeper cultural understanding through the lens of dance and performance.

“Dance is a very strong representation of cultural identity. Every country and culture has specific dances that are a creation of its history and experiences. Learning the dance form of a culture that you’re not familiar with can be key when it comes to truly understanding a culture. You’re learning about their languages, values and approach to their environment through something as accessible as dancing,” she says.

She goes on to say that once cultural performing and creative arts are understood, appreciated, preserved and practised acceptably, they will accelerate the achievement of communal coexistence and mutual national unity based on the sound foundations of diverse cultural identities.

“I can’t say that all people are interested in the dances and cultures of other countries but most people I have witnessed, are. Every October, three of us who are directors, we run a two-day international, inter-cultural and inter-generational dance festival in London. This year will be our 18th year. We don’t bring people from other countries as we don’t have the funding but in London, you’ve got all these groups of people that come from different countries to take part, and you become immersed in all the cultures. You get to see the national costumes; hear their music. Some of them, especially the Eastern Europeans, they bring their live bands and it’s brilliant,” she enthuses.

Perez teaches many Latin American dance classes all over London and has been teaching a dance class every Saturday for twenty years, the participants known as the Iberian Group. The Iberian Folk Dance group in London was already established when she joined, 13 years ago. A friend asked her to teach her partner the female part of the Argentine Tango, which she did. After this, she was invited to join the group and fell in love with the dances—Spanish, Portuguese and Mexican.

After three years, she started to teach the newer dances that she had learnt from the guest teachers. When the last secretary died, she took over the running of the group.

Perez also leads the Proteas dance group, made up of mainly expat South Africans, some of whom dance in the Iberian Group. The Proteas have been going for 10 years and started off doing the quadrille and the Tafelberg Commercial Square. They then decided to start a group and practise dances Perez has choreographed to South African music. They dance the Cuban Rueda and the Cuban Conga too.

Getting Riel with tradition

For the past few months, Perez has been involved in learning and teaching the Riel Dance, an ancient dance born out of ceremonial dancing around an open fire. This dance has been passed down from generation to generation amongst the Khoisan, the indigenous people of Southern Africa.

“I was actually told about Riel Dancing by a South African dancer, in passing, 10 ten years ago. However, last year, roundabout September, I really saw what it was all about and started reading the history,” she says.

Last year, a film, Get Riel, was made featuring Perez and South African Riel Dancing. It was composed of footage of Perez dancing and footage sent through by the Wuppertal Riel Dancers. “The film was entered into the Bristol Film Festival where it was voted third for the audience’s choice. Last month, the producers entered it into a film festival in Holland, where we were shortlisted for best feature. Unfortunately, we didn’t win but it was very well-received.

“My husband and I were in South Africa in January, where we met up with one team of Riel Dancers called Die Nuwe Graskouer Trappers and their coach who organised an overnight stay for them.

“We spent a whole day with the team who began to teach me the Riel Dance. Before coming, I had researched it online for ages and I thought I had learnt it all, however, I quickly found out that watching others perform it and doing it in person was a whole other story. I couldn’t pick up the little details in the step, so I had to struggle for a bit and it was tiring but they kept showing me, and it got easier. Since then, I have been practising like a mad woman, researching different groups and watching dance videos,” she says.

Perez will be back in South Africa this month to film a feature called Elsa and the Riel Dancers in Wuppertal, where the Riel Dancers live in very impoverished communities. The idea of the film is to showcase their traditional dancing and to help these teenage dancers with their schooling and touring costs. The film will follow Perez as she and a group of Riel Dancing school children share their stories of hardship growing up in Cape Town.

Dance gave Perez the chance to express herself in 1950s South Africa, where she was marginalised because of the colour of her skin.

“I’m excited to return and do some Riel with them, now that I can really do the steps, and I am also going to teach them the Samba and do a little Samba parade. I have made a whole set of Samba costumes—there are 30 in their group, 21 boys and 9 girls—and I am nearly finished sewing them all,” she says. Costume making, she says, is another passion of hers due to its creativity.

Once the film is completed, it will be sold and the money put into a trust for the dancers to use for their education and touring. A Just Giving page has been set up to help fund the film project and any leftover proceeds from the sale of the film will be put in trust for the Riel Dancers (justgiving.com/crowdfunding/moira-rowan).

Perez has never forgotten her South African roots and growing up in Cape Town, under an Apartheid government, and knows all too well about not being afforded the opportunities to grow and develop as a creative individual.

“I have never forgotten my background and I am passionate about my home country and doing my part in helping those in need. I am one of the trustees of the Mzimkhulu Trust, which started in 2008. We raise money for a little pre-school in Libode near Umtata. We work hard to send £2 000 each term. It pays for meals, equipment and donations to the two teachers, cook and gardener.

For about 10 years, my husband and I worked for Community Heart, started by Denis Goldberg. He moved back to Cape Town and the project moved to Manchester. I also donate to four other SA charities and attend their events. My SA group always dances for the one charity,” Perez says.

On what motivates her, she says that she has a lot of patience, is very goal-orientated and an optimist. “There are times when learning a certain set of dances I think ‘oh my goodness, will I get it’, especially if it’s a speedy dance. For example, if I’m doing a Samba dance I have to practice quite a lot to build up speed and energy—but I’ve got the patience and I work at it slowly,” explains Perez.

Asked what her secret to being as active as she is at her age she says, “I expect I’m blessed with good genes. I eat healthily and I exercise. I’ve always been a people person and I surround myself with positive people—I have lots of friends, my family and husband—and I never lack motivation for dance because I love it, I love teaching it and love seeing people improve. I truly believe that a positive headspace can extend your capabilities, regardless of one’s physicality. The classes and workshops I teach are open to all, regardless of age or ability. I believe that I was born to dance, so I do,” she says.

Perez brings a joy and energy to dance, which transcends her age and shines a light on the creative spirit and ageing positively. In her 83 years, Perez has danced around the world, exploring the dances of South America, the Caribbean, Spain, Portugal and her own South Africa. Due to her work, she has recently been awarded the prestigious membership of the Council of International Dance (UNESCO). She danced and taught a Riel dance when she attended their World Congress of Dance earlier this year in Athens. It was well-received and many were interested in the history of Riel dance and the Khoisan. It was an amazing five days of superb performances, workshops and lectures. 

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