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2011 and before

End-of-year party and farewell to Arlene Westergaard
Friends, family and colleagues of Arlene Westergaard – spanning almost three decades – gathered to honour her and wish her well in her retirement at Zama Dance School’s year-end function on 25 November 2011. Introduced by the school's Patron and Chairman Raymond Ackerman, students past and present performed works choreographed especially for Arlene, in dedication to the woman who had played such an instrumental role in enriching their lives.

Farewell for Arlene

Extract from Arlene Westergaard's director's report for 2011
"This is the end of my 27-year career with Zama Dance School and I am looking forward to my retirement after so many years filled with happiness, challenges and achievements. It is now time to hand over the responsibility of running the school to Andrew Warth.

I want to thank the funders for their generous support of the school, which has and is still making a huge difference to the lives of the children who walk through its doors. Above all, I want to thank our chairman, Raymond Ackerman, for his continued support and his belief in me and the fact that Zama can and has changed children’s lives.

I also want to thank my brother, Dr Malcolm Sandler, for his continued guidance as a trustee as well as the friendship and guidance I have received from June Hanks and the late Alan Odes. I would also like to thank all the members of the Ackerman Family Foundation for supporting the growth and development of the school.

A very big thank you must also go to Vuyokazi Rubuxa, our loyal and caring school secretary, who has been my right hand all along. I am confident she will continue to serve Zama with the same loyalty and caring she has given the school for many years to come.

Thinking of all the friends and colleagues I have met, who have been instrumental in the growth and development of Zama, and in answer to the question that some of them have put to me recently about what I’m going to do now, I will continue along my spiritual path through my studies of t’ai chi and, as the old saying goes, ‘one door closes, and another one opens’.” – Arlene Westergaard

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World famous ballet dancer Li Cunxin, author of the autobiographical book, Mao's Last Dancer, visited South Africa in February 2010 to raise funds for the Zama Dance School Trust in Gugulethu, Cape Town.

Article written by Debbie Hathway and published March 7, 2010; Weekend Argus; The Good Weekend, Sunday

Mao's last dancer brings message of hope

World-famous ballet dancer Li Cunxin (pronounced Lee Schwin Sing), author of the autobiographical book, Mao's Last Dancer, recently visited Cape Town to help raise funds for the Zama Dance School Trust in Gugulethu.

Tickets for his one-off motivational talk to scholars and ballet fans at the Cape Town International Convention Centre sold out and many balletomanes missed the opportunity to hear his inspiring story. Li's short visit was dictated by his "crazy" schedule, which includes touring to promote the film of his story, launched at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. "It ranks 11th among Australia's biggest films ever," says Li.

Five years ago, Li visited Joburg's townships while in South Africa on business and says he was reminded of his "childhood situations". Born into a peasant family during Mao Zedong's rule of communist China, when about 35 million people died of starvation, Li was selected to train at Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy.

Li Cunxin
Li Cunxin gives instruction to young Zama dancer, Khanya Vakala.

"China has come a long way but deep in the country there are still poverty-stricken scenes. Maybe not as bad as South Africa..." says Li. His journey began at age 11, when he was sent away from his parents and six brothers, who he saw only once a year for the following seven years, to train for something he knew nothing about and grew to "hate with a passion".

"We didn't know what ballet was. We had no cinemas; no theatre. I was the weakest in my class, and I couldn't jump. My teacher described my legs as overcooked spaghetti."

In comparison, students at Zama Dance School find sanctuary in classical ballet from as young as six years old in the nurturing environment established by artistic director Arlene Westergaard 25 years ago. Supported by the Ackermans Family Trust, and assisted by ballet master Andrew Warth and secretary Vuyokazi Rubuxa, Arlene is now able to provide 85 children "a home away from home" for a few hours a day. Zama gives them the opportunity to forge professional careers as dancers and choreographers after they matriculate. Raymond Ackerman said Li's visit was symbolic for young people, "not just in the dancing field, but in many fields. Education, dedication and hard work are the epitomy of what this man has achieved. Mao's Last Dancer is one of the most emotional books I've ever read."

Li's training at the esteemed Beijing Dance Academy was six days a week, from 5.30am to 9pm. An inspirational teacher gave him determination and courage to work harder, practising his turns by candlelight and hopping up and down stairs with heavy sandbags tied to his ankles to build his leg strength.

Resilience, perseverance and vision made Li one of the best dancers China has produced. He was discovered by Ben Stevenson, one of the world's most respected teachers and choreographers and the artistic director of Houston Ballet, during the first US cultural delegation visit to communist China. Li defected to America and danced with Houston Ballet for 16 years and Australian Ballet for another four years.

"I hope that whoever hears my story, reads my book or sees the movie takes away encouragement, courage and strength to achieve their best in life," says Li.

Now, he juggles duties as board member for Australian Ballet and patron of the Newcastle Dance Academy of Australia with work as a senior manager at a major stockbroking firm and motivational speaking at engagements that give him a "similar buzz to finishing a wonderful ballet performance".

During Li's recent visit to Zama, student Neige Virgilio said that she really appreciated "Mr Li" taking such an interest in her and helping her with her technique.

Many of the young dancers agreed that he had made them feel that no matter what their circumstances, if they really wanted to they could use their ballet "just like Mr Li did" to achieve success when they grew up. "It's very rewarding... touching younger audiences," says Li. "It gives me the most pleasure as you have to use your imagination to find the right words to inspire them. In the financial world, you have to take emotion out of it."

He says purpose and passion helped him reach his goals. "Self-belief is the foundation for confidence and I developed a deep love for ballet."

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Zama and the Ackerman Family Trust

79th birthday for Raymond Ackerman
Zama students celebrate Raymond Ackerman's 79th birthday

Zama and the Ackermans Family Trust/Foundation

"In 1984 Arlene (Westergaard) asked if she could meet me and I said yes - I see anybody who wants to see me. She said, 'I'm a dancing teacher, I teach young children - mostly wealthy white kids - but I really want to teach black kids, in a black area. Will you help me?'

"I was impressed by that. I asked what she needed and all it amounted to then was petrol money and a nominal rental for hiring the space she was using to teach classes in a church. Here was this woman going back and forth from Cape Town to Gugulethu in very difficult times in the apartheid era...

"Years later (1994/1995), just after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Arlene came to me again and said: 'Is it possible that you can build me a school?'

"I nearly fell off my chair. I don't know much about dancing and I didn't know anything about building a school but I looked at the figures and, again, said yes!

"My wife Wendy is heavily involved in our family's social investment and educational programmes. We've grown some lovely people - one guy received a Sainsbury art scholarship and we've sent music students to The Juilliard School. I thought this fitted in quite well.

"It's about changing lives, giving children hope...

"It's the reason I went into business (I always wanted to be a doctor). I learnt that the more you give to others, the more people will give back to you.

"In 1948 I heard a lecture in commerce from Professor WH Hutt at the University of Cape Town. His message was about consumer sovereignty and that if money-making is your objective, you won't make it in business. A similar message was repeated at a seminar that I attended in the US in 1956 given by a master of retailing, Bernado Trujillo. He said business should be built on strong administration, good advertising, the right merchandise at the right price and social responsibility. I tried to sell that idea to Greatermans and it got me fired.

"Pick n Pay was built on simple principles and I've lived them. I've spent my whole life backing people...

"And I was so impressed with Arlene and what she was doing for those little children at Zama (and some of them have gone on to perform in shows like The Lion King and become good professional dancers), that I couldn't stop helping them. Her enthusiasm for the kids and the way that they were being given a chance in life is my reward."

More about Raymond Ackerman

  • The only South African rated one of the world's top 100 most respected businessmen by the Financial Times
  • Honoured for his role in changing the retail landscape in South Africa through maximising consumer sovereignty within the Pick n Pay Group - the very idea that got him fired from his position as general manager of 85 Checkers stores for Greatermans at age 25; for his contribution to South African society through social investment and education; and for the legacy he has entrenched at Pick n Pay
  • Retired as chairman of Pick n Pay on 14 March 2010, just a few days after his 79th birthday, 42 years after he founded the company

 

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