How one Black dancer defied the odds
Siphesihle November, principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, showcases his art
Monday 28 February 2022 By Abigail Hirsch Video by What I Like Studio
At 23 years old, Siphe November is the youngest principal dancer that the National Ballet of Canada has ever had. Here, we speak to him about his journey from Zolani in South Africa to Toronto, blending styles of dance, and creating opportunity for Black individuals in spaces that were not historically built for them.
How did you get into dance? Tell us about your journey from the streets of Zolani to principal dancer at the National Ballet of Canada.
‘I’m from South Africa. Everyone back home would dance, it’s part of our culture. Growing up, I picked up after my four older siblings, dancing Kwaito street style. At the age of eight, I was introduced to classical ballet by a woman named Fiona Sargent, who taught local kids twice a week after school. I haven’t looked back since.
‘At 11, I got the opportunity to audition for Canada’s National Ballet School. I’d never flown before, nor travelled more than two hours away from my home. In the summer of 2010, I flew to Toronto to audition and was accepted into Canada’s National Ballet School. From there, my professional journey of classical ballet training began. I graduated with honours and joined the National Ballet of Canada straight into the core ballet. From there, I climbed the ranks from second soloist to soloist and then principal dancer.’
How do you combine both classical ballet and Kwaito street style?
‘I started dancing in the streets of South Africa, barefoot. Dance for me is rhythm; it’s people understanding you without having to say a word. Classical ballet is fabricated in a very literal sense. How do you combine those two? That’s part of the joy I get from dance; I’m able to still be myself, and stay true to classical ballet and street dance.’
‘Contemporary dance, classical ballet, street style – they’re all the same to me, just different stylistic ways of telling the same human stories’
How does dance represent Black joy to you?
‘Black joy is carrying my history, my family, and the love that they instilled in me every single day. It’s reminding myself who I am. Contemporary dance, classical ballet, street style – they’re all the same to me, just different stylistic ways of telling the same human stories. It doesn’t change the root of it, even though the styles may be different.’
Can you speak to the victory and impact that your success has had for Black dancers?
‘When you’re in a space that isn’t historically built for you, eyes will be on you, which puts pressure on your work. At the same time, it’s a privilege to be a role model to kids; to let them know it’s about more than your skin, your background or physical traits to be able to occupy spaces. It’s having the will to enter those spaces.
‘I’m focused on continuing to speak on equity, diversity and inclusion in the dance world. I want to ensure that future Black dancers and children all over the world have the opportunity to enter welcoming institutions. I want to restructure the old systems of dance and return to the roots of acceptance, storytelling, moving people without extra baggage, and to the humanity that attracted me to this art form; slowly peeling away all the layers, making sure that dance is sustainable for the future.
‘The different styles of contemporary, Afrobeats, and classical ballet are deeply embedded in who I am. Hopefully in the future, we can insert them all into the ballet world, so that you don’t have to carry them into the space; they already exist for others to walk into. Ballet is enriched when dancers come from various backgrounds and have different styles of dance. It also pushes dance to progress and accept a diverse range of people.’