Siphesihle November doesn’t remember when he started dancing; he only remembers how it felt. “I knew the power dance had over me. When I was a part of it, it felt like home,” he says. As a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada—and, at 23, the youngest in its seven-decade history—he’s now worlds away from Zolani, the South African farming township where he grew up. There, November improvised to kwaito, a mash-up of house music and traditional beats that loosely translates to “hot-tempered.”
November quickly became known among locals as “the dancer,” and the art form was a lifeline for him: poverty and racism were rampant in the community where he lived with his siblings and their mother, Sylvia, a cannery worker. “I come from a place where you’re faced with quite raw and real situations,” he says. “Communicating that sadness helped me navigate who I was.”
When November was 10, his talent caught the attention of a visiting Toronto family who had enrolled their daughter at a local dance academy. Captivated, they encouraged him to apply to Canada’s National Ballet School. At 12, he was accepted on a full scholarship, leaving behind his siblings and his mom. “It was a feast of excitement,” he says. “The homesickness came later.”
At the school, November alchemized the hot temper of kwaito to propel his gravity-defying jumps and burn the rough edges off his classical positions. As in Zolani, he became a known quantity; the National Ballet even waived its usual apprenticeship period to give November a job immediately upon graduation. This month, he stars in Karen Kain’s new adaptation of Swan Lake.
His technical prowess isn’t the only thing that makes him a ballet outlier: his style is rooted in African tradition. With every performance, November butts up against deeply entrenched Eurocentrism. “I’m in an art form where everything is so objective. How do I make people look beyond that to be moved or have different conversations at the dinner table?”
Swan Lake is a step onto the podium, but November also wants to choreograph—
a talent he briefly flexed this spring with a piece called On Solid Ground. It’s in choreography where he can showcase his versatility, where his sky-high legs and jumps can mix with the odd reflexive flourish of kwaito. “In any dance setting, I will never drown. I will always float,” he says. “That’s my superpower.”
Pre-performance routine: “Listening to an Afrobeats playlist. I also need a coffee and
After-show routine: “Stuffing my face with chips, dried mango and orange Fanta.”
Favourite dance movie: “You can’t go wrong with Center Stage.”
Comforts of South Africa: “The people, the mountains, the bushes, the sea, the roads—they’re the most beautiful in the world.”
Off-stage obsession: “I’m really into natural wines right now, especially with summer coming up.”
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