You would think dancing before Queen Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey or performing as one of the best 20 female dancers in the UK on So You Think You Can Dance? would top the list of proudest moments for any dancer. But you’d be wrong. According to Tulimelila Shityuwete, her most gratifying achievement was being able to pay rent on her fledging dance studio for an entire year.
“We managed to pay back a substantial sum of our investment – that was a great occasion. Our studio has become a hub for dance in Windhoek and is always buzzing, full of young Namibians teaching each other, practicing their craft, and learning. This is never what I thought I would do with my life, but I’m incredibly proud of everything we’ve built.”
Born in exile in London to what she describes as a “handsome Namibian freedom fighter and a ballsy English development aid worker,” Shityuwete returned to Namibia following its independence from South Africa when she was three years old. A happy child from a close knit family, she didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
“Dad was a political prisoner on Robben Island for 18 years but has always been the calmest, funniest, kindest person. He carries this huge presence, but quietly, in the most beautiful way. Mum has worked in development for 25 years. She is an incredible leader but always with kindness, a brilliant sense of humor, and a cheeky irreverence. I’ve always known I wanted to be a dancer,” she explains, “but – because of my parents – I also knew what I chose to do with my life had to be for more than just my own happiness or my own well-being.”
The 28-year-old Shityuwete was bitten by the dance bug as a young child. Graduating top of her class with a distinction in musiciology from the University of Cape Town, she and fellow UCT graduate, Haymich Olivier, opened First Rain Dance Theatre in 2010. Today a professional contemporary dance company that concurrently runs a traineeship program for young Namibians and open classes for the general public, First Rain began very informally.
“We worked for free and mostly dove in and figured things out as we went along,” Shityuwete says with a laugh. “I just wanted to be a dancer – now I am a dancer, choreographer, teacher, director, producer, accountant, public relations expert, marketing manager, human resources manager, costume and make-up designer and all things in-between. I love every second of it!”
While First Rain was a passion, until recently it had not generated much income so Shityuwete performed with various dance companies, one of which took her to London where she met the Queen. Unfortunately, an injury took her off the dance floor for several months and so she took a position with a human rights organization, advocating for LGBTI rights, where she worked mornings until the end of last year before heading over to her dance studio.
About three years ago, Olivier and Shityuwete decided to formalize the structure of First Rain and operate as an arts business. They had been saving for years and, when an angel investor stepped forward following the critical success of the theater’s Anima production, the pair were finally able to renovate and rent the studio where they are currently based. While they have increased turnover, built a following, and grown a solid client base, it hasn’t been easy.
“It’s incredibly hard trying to run an arts business where no real industry exists. You find yourself in a position where you are the capacity. Haymich and I have to train all our own dancers, educate clients, push for visibility, build audiences, and be our own accountants and administrators. All of this on top of trying to dance ourselves and create artistic dance work. There are never enough hours in the day.”
Glowing from the first flush of success, Shityuwete is adamant that in five years First Rain will be a sustainably running private dance company, gainfully employing locals with social security, health insurance, and a pension. She envisions the troupe dancing full time and touring across Namibia, as well as other African countries, and even further afield.
Hearing the enthusiasm in this confident woman’s voice, there is no doubt she’ll get there.
“I wasn’t sure we’d be able to successfully run an arts business, but we figured out the formula that works for us. There were so many things I jumped into without knowing how much work they entailed or even how to do them, and I just did them. I really believe in taking leaps of faith and coupling that with dogged hard work and a belief that I will succeed.”
It’s a strategy that seems to be working for this visionary young Namibian.
You can watch a video clip of Tuli dancing here.
- Invest in people, don’t worry about the competition, and go with your gut.
- Ask stupid questions. People will assume you know what they are talking about – it is ok not to know what you’re doing sometimes. Ask, ask, ask.
- If you’re in Namibia, there’s a great NGO called SME’s Compete which gives free advice, tools and mentorship to Namibian small business