Kalima Mipata's Leap From Botswana to Broadway
On opposite sides of the African continent two dancers walk similar paths. One, Layla Ghaleb, is an Egyptian dancer and choreographer. Layla’s love for Hip Hop dance swept her off her feet when she was a teenager. Her courage to pursue it opened up a path from her home in Cairo to Urban Dance Camp in Germany and right back to Cairo twice. The second time around she opened her own dance studio, having seen and experienced firsthand the gap in the market, with her business and dance partner Mahmoud Shoukry. She speaks extensively on her journey through dance with Samia Qaiyum in Cairo Calling. The other, Kalima Mipata, is a Zambian dancer and choreographer currently living in Botswana. Much like Layla, Kalima’s passion for Hip Hop dance took root in his early teens too, although his love for dance as a medium of expression overall had taken hold of him when he was still a literal child watching Michael Jackson videos. Its subsequent growth led him to start a Hip Hop dance crew, This Is Africa (T.I.A), that would set the foundation for a thriving career as a dancer. This foundation and Kalima’s consistent nurturing of his love for dance would grow beyond the borders of Africa itself and lead him all the way to Broadway and back, armed with a new desire to start his own dance studio as well. Both of their tales stand as testaments to how one can go from pop locking in the privacy of their bedroom to unlocking their highest potential on the world stage.
Kalima Mipata’s words are as measured as his steps. There’s a rhythm to conversation with him and it’s clear he takes care to let the other party take their stance before he positions himself for his. There’s a serenity and carefulness to his expression in all ways, one that’s evident even when he’s excited. Perhaps that’s what comes with your job being one where you literally avoid making the wrong move.
“Sometimes it’s like, I’m split into two. Who I am on stage is very different from who I am in everyday life but both of those people are still me. Dancer Kalima is methodical, precise but as soon as I get off that stage, people who don’t know what I do just know me as funny Kalima. I’m the guy making everyone laugh” he shares.
“Do you believe this is your calling?” I ask him.
“I absolutely believe it’s my calling, yes. Performing comes so easy to me, it always has. I’ve loved it for so long and I don’t want to say that the process of becoming a dancer itself was easy at all, it wasn’t, but for me, I definitely feel like I’ve managed to grow in my craft in what’s more like... a flow. And that to me, how it feels... feels like destiny. It feels like a calling.”
Video of TEDxGaborone Talk Footsteps of a Phoenix by Kalima Mipata, 2018
The story of Kalima’s path to dance and performance art in general greatly mirrors that of his parent’s migration from Zambia to Botswana; it’s been a journey with a few notable stops along the way leading to a destination that feels like hope and home. When he was 5 years old his mother was offered a teaching position in Gaborone and decided to take the offer. She left her husband and eldest son, Ryan, behind and took Kalima and his younger brother, Chisala, with her. The trio gradually made their way down the country, living in Maun, Francistown, Mochudi and ultimately ending up in Gaborone, where Ryan and their father joined them later.
“They both got offered teaching positions but my mom’s came first so we went ahead with her. My little brother and I got super close during that time. We spent a lot of time together, we liked a lot of the same things and we’d eventually end up forming a dance crew together called T.I.A (This Is Africa).”
To keep himself entertained Kalima would chronically watch a VHS compilation his father had of Michael Jackson music videos and study the choreography, this would be his initiation into the world of dance. “I loved the versatility of the styles, I’d never seen anyone move like that before! I would try to see if I could do the same things he could and I ended up learning the choreography like that.” Though at the time he wanted to become an actor when he grew up (and eventually he would), dance would establish itself in his life as a source of wonder and a meaningful manner of expression.
“There’s something special that happens when I dance. It’s something I can’t explain but I know I have the gift and ability to tell stories through dance and to move people in ways even they sometimes can’t express back to me.”
Buckville perform Love Me (Official Music Video), 2012
At the age of 13 he started This Is Africa, a Hip Hop dance crew comprising of Kalima, Chisala, Chitukuta “C Fresh” and Faith Rapoo. The crew were a match made in heaven and a raving success, well versed in breakdancing, pop locking and krumping. The goal was to strengthen their skills when it came to Hip Hop dance and they’d periodically engage in battles and sign up for competitions to test their skills. Through their frequent performances at high schools around Gaborone they built a solid fanbase but as their stardom rose, so did their personal ambitions, ultimately sending each member in different directions. Kalima took the opportunity to strengthen his bonds with other dancers and crews in Gaborone and took to practicing with the well known, now defunct, Buckville Donkeez. “I wasn’t going to stop dancing, I knew that, so when the crew disbanded I just aligned myself with people I already knew who shared the same interests.” Buckville Donkeez was a Hip Hop dance crew that consisted of Ndiye Christmas, Mothusi “Seeks” Maxwell, Oatile “ATI” Ramsay and Koby Buckville. Kalima danced with Buckville for about a year and did a lot of performances at Maru A Pula school. MaP, as it’s called, is the home of Maitisong, the premiere centre for performing arts in Botswana. “They taught me a lot and I respected them as well, they were my friends and we all knew how good everyone was. They were a strong crew and one of the few that I knew would definitely go toe to toe with T.I.A if we were to battle.”
T.I.A Dance Crew at The Shakedown, published Classic Cj Productions, 2012
Kalima’s commitment to the craft would pay off. After finishing High School he got the opportunity to further deepen his roots in the dance scene by studying at Vuyani Dance Theatre (Now Vuyani Dance Company) in Johannesburg. Vuyani was mainly a contemporary and afro fusion dance academy but it had a vast curriculum that included ballet, latin and Hip Hop classes. The offer affirmed that he indeed was going in the right direction. “There’s usually about a year that one has to go through studying the technical aspect of dance upon enrolment but after my audition the school decided to exempt me from that year because of how skilled I was. It was one of the first times that it really hit me how good at this I actually am. It was humbling, to say the least.” In her conversation with Samiya Quayim Layla Ghaleb mentions how her first go at Urban Dance Camp was an early attempt at taking the direction of her career into her own hands, reeling from losing her crew as well. In Layla’s case, the crew didn’t disband, they kicked her out over her refusal to perform at venues that didn’t align with her values. Still a teenager, she buckled under the pressure but returned to prove Eminem and everybody else wrong by taking a second shot and landing it, that first shot wasn’t her sole chance to blow after all. “The second time around was better – my mentality was different,” shared Ghaleb “This alone made me not stress about the classes, and I was actually doing well from a skill point of view. It was the best experience of my life.”
In 2010 Kalima’s life would change forever when he met the man who would go on to be his mentor, Andrew Letso Kola, the Founder and Artistic Director of Mophato Dance Theatre. “We were at a flash mob audition and I guess I stood out. I picked up the routine easily and I was able to perform different styles of dance with ease. After the auditions he took me aside and said he wanted to take me under his wing because he saw my potential and from there he started teaching me everything that he knows.” His love for African contemporary dance grew intensely as he performed his first contemporary production Hayani directed by South African Artistic Director Luyanda Sidiya in 2010. As a junior dancer in 2010 and 2011 Kalima Mipata pushed through dance barriers to feature in more productions to secure him a position as senior dancer in 2012.
“Going to Joburg definitely solidified my parents’ faith in my craft. Obviously with African parents you have to prove to them that you can make it on your own when you deviate from a set path. They saw that dance wasn’t just a hobby it was a thing that was literally opening up doors for me. The first time I got on a plane was because of dance, to head to the 15th Metro FM Awards in Durban. The first time I saw the beach and the ocean was because of dance. I was part of a crew of dancers performing at the Metro FM Awards and we did routines for the likes of DA LES and AKA and Kwaito heavyweights like Mandoza, Trompies and Oskido. My parents were able to actually see what I do on TV because the awards were broadcast on SABC 1. When I got off stage I found a text from my dad telling me that they’d watched my performance and how proud of me he was. It just inspired me to go harder and see how much further I could take this” he shares.
In a world where authenticity can either make you a cherished or shunned individual (because everyone has such a visceral response to one not only being “different” but being in flow with where that aforementioned difference and one’s receptivity to it leads) the Universe seemed to constantly affirm that Mipata was on the right track - that indeed, his path was real and laid out for him. His dedication and discipline constantly set him apart from the rest and as he grew the old guard of Mophato Dance Theatre were in agreement that he had something special worth nurturing. “They believed in me and I didn’t take that for granted. It made me want to prove to them that they’d made the right decision in investing in me. Every new task, every new dance I threw myself into it with all my heart.”
His past experience as the leader of T.I.A had set him up to easily acclimatise to being part of a troupe. The long days spent perfecting routines, fuelled mostly by ambition and audacity, had moulded him into someone who was creatively a force to be reckoned with and a leader who was capable of recognising other people’s talents and helping them to hone them. What had started out as a personal interest mostly focused on Hip Hop dance and rap music in general had over the years grown to be a means to foster community with others who, like him, felt a deeper connection to music and movement and as he grew, so too did his scope of capabilities and interests. “It actually wasn’t difficult to make that switch from being identified as a Hip Hop dancer to branching out into contemporary dance because I’d never boxed myself in, even when I was just dancing on my own,” he shares. “I always wanted to learn new stuff. I allowed my body to change and I pushed it to its limits and beyond. There was nothing I felt I couldn’t do. And even when I was nervous to try something new, I’d try it nonetheless and end up grasping it.” This transformation is one Ghaleb touches on as well - what one becomes beyond the scope of Hip Hop, its fandom, and their place in it, in reality. In her words, her style is more “open style choreography” than Hip Hop dance at this point. Like Mipata, she’s trained and learned Hip Hop however it’s but a fraction of their expertise and routines now. It’s a part of something bigger. “Hip-hop has specific moves with specific names. What I do is very freeing. It doesn't have any boundaries,” shares Ghaleb. “I can do a move from hip-hop, but then I can also do an afro move or a classical move or a jazz-funk move, creating a mix of everything, so there's still a lot to teach. People always say, ‘Oh, you're a hip-hop dancer.’ And you know what? I just go with it because it's a very long story.”
“When I joined Mophato and we started deepening our knowledge of Tswana traditional dance it sort of felt like a full circle moment because I’d already grasped a basic knowledge of the movements and styles when I was younger,” says Kalima. “In Grade 5 I’d done Tswana Traditional Dance at the school I went to and so it was just a matter of remembering what I’d learned then and building on that. I can confidently say now that I’ve mastered all the different styles of Tswana Traditional Dance. I choreograph routines often and I’m one of the best at it.”
The aforementioned flow that Kalima sees as a definite sign of dance being his destiny also helped him ease into the personal changes that came with his growth. When I ask him about navigating the difference between where he started out and the crowds he used to perform for then, and where he finds himself now - a highly coveted choreographer and overall performer who’s essentially a corporate darling - he takes a minute to think on his evolution. “I’ll be honest, none of it feels strange. Even though I’m traveling a lot and doing all of these high end, serious things, in my personal life I never really left those “urban” spaces. A lot of my friends are performers and musicians, I’m also a musician. It feels like I have grown to be able to have the best of both worlds.”
Ndeya (Official Video) by Flyboi Que, published by Flyboi Que, 2020
Kalima choreographs all his videos himself and he says that will probably be the case for the foreseeable future. “Because it’s something I love, it looks easy but it’s challenging to be both in front of and behind the camera. When it comes to making music versus dance, I think I lean more towards dance in my heart but the music is also proving to be a thing that’s worth nurturing because it’s taking off.”
In 2018 Mipata would face his greatest challenge yet when he was cast as one of the leads in PULA! Botswana on Broadway, a fictional play anchored on the practical and mystical relationship that Batswana have with rain. The production was put together under the direction of his mentor Andrew Letso Kola and was sold out for the days that it ran. “I’d love to say that it was a dream come true but honestly, it’s one of those things that you never really think will happen! I think for a lot of the crew it only sunk in that we were actually on Broadway as we were walking through Times Square. Our stage was right beneath the Lion King stage and I remember at some point sneaking away from the troupe just to see the ticket line. I couldn’t believe it! There were so many people, more than I’d ever seen before, lined up in the cold to come and see us!”
“The Lion King on Broadway has its own legacy,” he shares. “It felt like a deeply profound moment to be right next to the main stage taking all of that in... Belonging there. When we came back, I was inspired to find a way to make reaching such heights possible for other African performers. I've seen that it’s possible.” There’s a Setswana saying that goes “Go tsamaya ke go bona” which literally translates to “To go is to see”. It basically speaks to how traveling opens one’s eyes to all kinds of possibilities. Staying in the same place can sometimes lull a person into a sense of complacency that can be alleviated by traveling outside of their comfort zone. In conversation with Samia, Layla Ghaleb speaks on her two stints at Urban Dance Studio in Germany and the role that those tenures played in helping shape who she was not only as a dancer but as a person. The transformation she underwent under the guidance of her teachers served to ignite a desire within her to teach dance and ultimately open up a dance studio in Cairo. “My teachers helped me define what dance is for me. Because of how much dance helped me, I realized how much I could help people with it,” she says. “It made me accept myself in ways I could not even imagine. Dance classes are life lessons. Teachers like Chris Martin and Keone Madrid saw dancing as a therapeutic approach as much as it is a skill, and their classes were the ones that shaped me.”
Botswana on Broadway, published by ILoveBotswana Ensemble, 2018
Like Layla, Kalima’s relationship with dance is one that’s about learning as much as it is about teaching. His Andrew Letso Kola is Layla’s Chris Martin and Keone Madrid - mentors who moulded them into brilliant dancers and benevolent members of their artistic communities. Despite his hectic schedule Mipata still finds time to teach classes periodically and to assist in nurturing the talent of others. He lends his expertise to teach a girl’s ballet class as freely as he does to choreograph moves for famous artists. When Sampa The Great was tapped to film a live performance during COVID for the Australian Recording Industry Association Music Awards in 2020 while she was in Gaborone, where she also grew up, she called upon Kalima to choreograph the piece. “That was a moment I treasured. She gave me free reign to create something and I was very proud of the final product.”
Sampa The Great - Live Performance ARIA Awards 202, published by Sampa The Great, 2020
“I’m honestly almost always busy. If we’re not practicing for a show, we’re doing a show and my family doesn’t really get to see me much but it’s not a thing that I think any of us are resentful of. Of course they’d like to spend more time with me but they’re also very proud of where I am right now in life and the person that I’ve become. They’re very supportive and understanding of the fact that my chosen career is one that’s strenuous and time consuming. I also think they know better than anyone else what it means to me to be good at this.”
While he hasn’t been back to Zambia in a while, his future plans include opening dance academies in both Botswana and Zambia to continue the work that he’s started and pay forth the benevolence that’s been shared with him by his mentors along the way. ”I think that’s definitely an important part of my big picture - sharing what I have and what I’ve learned with the next generation and helping to elevate them and their craft, just as mine was elevated by those who came before me. It would be a special thing to do and I’d like to be in a position to one day do that.”
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2023
A response to Cairo Calling: A Profile of Layla Ghaleb by Samia Qayium
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Bakang Tshegofatso Akoonyatse is a psychic medium who works in media, based in Gaborone, Botswana. Over the years she’s written for publications such as Native Mag, Tagged ZA, True Africa, Okay Africa, Mail and Guardian, PSP Culture and Wear Your Voice on issues ranging from
mental health to motherhood and music.
She’s an author and published photographer. Her essay on body dysmorphia and belief systems, O Tlaa Ipona, is featured in Kwela Books' Touch Anthology. She's also featured in Iwalewa Books' We're Here anthology with a photo series and an essay called Can We Fix It?
on how Black women experience pleasure. She’s also one of the authors featured in Broccoli Magazine's Weed Moms book with a piece called Kelis Wouldn't Do Me Like This.
Bakang is also a content producer and a presenter, as the host of Bathong on NOW TV (DSTV290), a talk show with a focus on spiritual matters.