An Interview with Nikhita Winkler
Nikhita Winkler is the founder of Nikhita Winkler Dance Theatre (NWDT), a dance school located in Windhoek, Namibia. Driven by her passion and belief that dance can be a tool to educate, connect and support vulnerable children, Nikhita has applied her training in Europe and the US to developing and amplifying the dance scene in her home country. Here, she shares the scope of her ambition and the steps she’s taking to get there.
Can you share a little about your dance history – what kinds of performance practices and in what contexts shaped who you are today?
I started dancing at the age of five at College of the Arts in Windhoek, Namibia. My first love was ballet. I did RAD [Royal Academy of Dance training] until I was 16 years old. I also took hip hop classes and joined local dance crews between primary and high school. At age 15, I started my own dance crew called Disturbance. We were a group of five females who performed with local musicians. At age 16, I received a scholarship to attend one of what was then 15 United World Colleges (UWC). I moved to Norway for two years to attend the Red Cross Nordic United World College (RCNUWC) and formed a contemporary group with seven of my co-years who were from all over the world.
It was always my dream to dance in New York, so after UWC I applied to dance colleges in the US and received a four-year scholarship to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs where I completed my bachelor’s degree in Dance Performance with a concentration in Neuroscience. I was living my dream. I was called the dancing doctor when I was young because of my desire to be both a dancer and a doctor, and here I was: a young Namibian dancer in New York studying dance and neuroscience.
At Skidmore, I took my first modern dance, jazz and improvisation classes. I continued with ballet, joined the hip hop group on campus, and performed works by Professor Mary Harney, etudes from Donald McKayle “Rainbow Etude,” as well as works by Isadora Duncan, José Limón and David Parsons. Dancing at Skidmore was exciting. The style of the department was new, challenging and fun. I was a teacher’s assistant for improvisation and dance experience, which was a class dominated by students from other departments taking dance to fulfill their arts requirement. I appreciated the opportunities to see other dance companies. The most memorable of all performances, and possibly my favorite work to date, is In The Upper Room by Twayla Tharp, performed by American Ballet Theatre.
When I graduated in 2015, I had the option to further my studies in Movement Therapy in New York or Chicago, or to return to Namibia where I was going to start working on the bigger dream. It has been my life goal to found Namibia’s biggest, most acclaimed, celebrated and internationally recognized dance school. But first, I wanted to just dance. Unfortunately, dancing as a career in Namibia is almost non-existent unless you are part of a traditional performing group. I returned to Namibia after graduation to start working on my dream and with the goal of refocusing my training in traditional and local street styles. I briefly joined a Tswana cultural group called Makgona Ngwao, which my traditional dance teachers come from. This inspired me to fuse traditional dance with contemporary, bringing fresh entertainment to our local audiences. My style sets me apart today and has exposed me to the best performance opportunities in the industry, which include being the co-choreographer of our Independence Day mass performances.
What was the impetus for initiating Nikhita Winkler Dance Theatre?
Nikhita Winkler Dance Theatre (NWDT) is a childhood dream that is driven by my passion for dance. Coming from a middle-class family and raised by a single mother, I could never have afforded the education I received from the best schools in the world. I was blessed with opportunity, and I was prepared for these opportunities. NWDT is my way of giving back to Namibia, to Africa, and to the world. The impetus comes from a very deep feeling of gratitude for the life I have been blessed with. NWDT stands for the empowerment of dreams.
Nikhita in Oshiwambo traditional ondelela dress, Photo by Karl Leck
How is it organized? What kinds of classes do you offer and how often? What communities do you work with?
NWDT is a dance school by day and dance gym by night. The studio supports skilled but practicing and professional artists/dancers/teachers to further develop their skills in dance teaching, training and/or choreography as well as a platform for already established classes to grow their clientele.
The day training program is for children ages four and up. We have classes in contemporary, hip hop and traditional dance. Our youngest group is age four to seven, and we call them Grassroots. It is mandatory for this group to take all three genres offered in the first year of their training, after which they can specialize. Hence, Grassroots have class three times a week; Monday hip hop, Wednesday contemporary, and Friday traditional dance. We value the variety of classes we offer at NWDT, a unique component of our studio. Through the Grassroots model, we educate our youngest about dance in its diversity and we shape our students into eclectic bodies. Enrollment into this program is twice a year, ending with a year-end celebration performed to local Namibian or originally produced music.
In the evenings, we offer a variety of dance fitness classes such as twerking, heels and African dance classes for adults. Our classes mostly accommodate women but are not closed off to men. The studio operates like a gym wherein members can pay a monthly fee for unlimited access, a drop-in fee, or a 10-class pass. Saturdays we are available for any dancer who wants to offer an open class like improvisation, acrobatics, etc.
We recently started the open class/evening program to empower dance instructors to teach without the weight of paying high studio rental costs and doing administrative work; to employ dancers; and to support the dance community to work on developing their individual brands while building their own following.
Our community projects, which are youth empowerment initiatives, operate under the Nikhita Winkler Dance Project (NWDP). The project was established in 2017, a year before we opened the Dance Theatre. Since 2017, we have been teaching dance in an underprivileged community in Windhoek called Otjomuise. We work with vulnerable children to teach life skills through dance such as discipline, respectful and positive communication, leadership, confidence, teamwork, self-care and nutrition. We also expose our students to other dance related events by taking them on day trips and performing opportunities, for which they can get paid.
Our other community project is a dance workshop that takes place once a year and which aims to draw talent from all corners of Namibia, empowering the youth to reconnect with their stories through a therapeutic movement workshop. The project is called Street Style Stories (SSS). It challenges dancers to explore meaningful expression and reflect on the journeys of their individual and collective lives. SSS develops the dancers’ skills to express poignant narrative through movement while encouraging them to explore the parameters around more natural versus choreographed ways of traditional/classical movement.
NWDT extends all performance and work opportunities to this pool of talent from our projects, open classes, training program, and teachers, selecting the best performers or those who show potential and ability to perform. Hence, performance opportunities – ranging from commercial to government to corporate to music and theater concerts – are shared with students as young as four years old.
Traditional dance performance by NWDT students from the Otjomuise program for 2019 year-end celebration
How would you characterize the dance scene in Windhoek, and how does your work fit into that scene?
Our dance scene is emerging but almost stagnant due to a lack of educational, funding and work opportunities. Most dancers are freelancers finding informal employment in the music industry. We only have one professional company that is also dependent on funding sources, and quite a few dance studios that train young students. There are hardly any opportunities for professional dancers to train, so professionals are forced to find opportunities outside of the country, to create international networks and partnerships that can support events such as the Windhoek International Dance Festival. Dance in theater needs to explore new ways of engaging artistry and collaboration, or dancers need to expand their skills to penetrate the theater scene.
The work that I do aspires to bring stability to the dance scene by providing employment opportunities for young adults from which they gain practical management, leadership, teaching and professional skills. Our main challenge is finding support for projects and creating a strong network to become more independent from government and/or private funding. Therefore, my goal is to inspire innovative thinking and collaboration across industries, as well as create partnerships that can benefit from our skills. NWDT is a model for diversifying profitable opportunities within dance, employing artists, training children and adults, and collaborating with other dance schools, crews and professionals to share opportunities and strengthen our isolated community.
Can you share more about the Ambassadors of Dance program?
The Ambassadors of Dance is our school’s motto. It reminds us of where we are going, why we continue to challenge ourselves and strive for excellence, and that we are in the process of shaping disciplined role models in our communities, as well as representing Namibia on a national and global platform. Currently, our teachers – myself and the traditional dance teacher, Onaleena Mogotsi, leader of Makgona Ngwao cultural group – have either toured, performed or taught classes internationally. In 2018, one of our students from Street Style Stories competed in the World Championship of Performing Arts in Los Angeles and returned home with three gold medals. In 2019, we selected another student from SSS to represent Namibia as an Ambassador in Zambia for the launch of Multichoice’s Talent Factory.
How would you like to expand/grow your work in the future?
I have envisioned the growth of my work for the next two decades. First, we need to ensure that all our projects run annually and are sustainable with secure funding and branching throughout the country. We still need to buy and develop curriculums for our training program and become accredited and approved by the government as a training institution so that we can train more dance teachers to start teaching dance in schools. I would like to open a dance shop and design my own dancewear. Sooner than later, I would like to start a YouTube channel and develop the school’s website and booking system. There’s obviously a lot of planning that goes into a project of this scale and it will take time to grow in Namibia because we have a population of 2.5 million people, 325,000 of which live in Windhoek. I am still in the beginning stages of transitioning from an artist to an entrepreneur/art-trepreneur. Most important right now is finding the right minds who are willing to work together and who have the skills to help the dream unfold.
Dewen Gariseb, a dancer from Street Style Stories
To learn more, visit www.facebook.com/nwdancetheatre.