Many years ago, it was virtually unheard of for a Muslim to become a ballet dancer. It was not until Johaar Mosaval came along and decided to change all of that. Born and raised in the dusty streets of District Six, he went on to become an iconic international dancer who’s career highlights include dancing at the 1953 royal coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
In March of this year, the University of Cape Town celebrated the 91 year old Johaar’s 70 year long career with an Honorary Doctor of Music Degree. The aim of honorary doctorates is to “pay homage to individuals who have contributed immensely to the development of society at large”.
Not only has Johaar contributed significantly to society, but he also broke down barriers which, at the time, seemed unbreakable. It was especially unbreakable if you were a poor kid who was born in the deeply conservative era of 1928, and coming from an even more conservative Muslim family.
As the eldest of 10 children, Johaar was expected to get married and get a normal job. It was not any easier outside of his home. If he told anyone, including his teachers, that he wanted to do ballet, they would laugh at him.
There were many times when Johaar was ridiculed and mocked to the point where he felt that he wanted to sink into the ground. Although it did not feel nice, he was not about to let mean comments stop him from getting onto the world stage.
A deeply determined Johaar was the school’s star gymnast and also acted in the school’s pantomimes which were held in the Cape Town City Hall. His raw, undeniable talent caught the eye of many who wanted to throw money and opportunities at the young dynamo.
At the age of 19, he was offered the opportunity to train for three years at the UCT Ballet School. This was the sort of thing that was discouraged by the white minority administration and they made a point of showing him how unwelcome he was.
As the only person of colour, the then 19 year old had limited access to classes and was constantly the subject of racist taunts. It was obvious that the racist establishment would make his life difficult, and he had to find another solution.
The solution came two years later when he auditioned to be accepted into London’s Sadler’s Wells Ballet School. The auditions were held at Cape Town’s whites-only Alhambra Theatre, which meant that he was not allowed in. However, with the help of his many supporters, he was smuggled into the theatre and this set in motion the wheels of his internationally acclaimed career.
Johaar was accepted into the ballet but of course, his conservative Muslim parents were still against the idea of him becoming a ballet dancer. It took the intervention of his two sheikhs at the Azzavia Masjid in Walmer Estate, to convince his parents to let him go. They asked him to dance for them and were so impressed, that they advised his parents that if he gets an opportunity to go overseas, they should let him take it. The sheikhs just made him promise that he would never forget his religion.
So, with the financial help of his many supporters which included the Progressive Muslim Society, he left South Africa for the UK and quickly rose up the ranks. He joined Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet Company in England and became a soloist in 1956, principal dancer in 1960, and senior principal dancer of the Royal Ballet by 1965. And of course, he danced for the new Queen of his new home country.
After having spent 25 years in the UK as one of the most iconic and successful ballet dancers in the world, Johaar decided that it was time to return home. However, before he returned, he enrolled for and became one of the first dancers to earn a Professional Dance Teaching Diploma from the Royal Academy of Dance.
Back home, he wanted to focus on contributing to the development of ballet in the Coloured community, and subsequently accepted the position of Inspector of Schools for Ballet under the Administration of Coloured Affairs. However, despite his focus on Coloured areas, he wanted to help anyone who wanted it and needed it. After realising that he was prohibited from helping members of other races, he quit his job.
Johaar had started his own ballet school but was soon shut down by the apartheid government for his determination to never discriminate against anyone. His school was multiracial and at the time, that was illegal. Despite the determination of the regime to make him toe the line, he refused and continued to teach and help develop ballet to everyone, regardless of race.
Over the course of his career, Johaar has been the recipient of many awards, including the Winston Churchill Award (1975), Queen Elizabeth II Gold Jubilee Medal (1977), Western Cape Arts, Culture and Heritage Award (1999), Western Cape Premier’s Commendation Certificate (2003), Cape Tercentenary Foundation Molteno Gold Medal (2005), and the Arts and Culture Trust Lifetime Achievement Award for Dance (2016). Most recently, he was presented with The Order of Ikhamanga in Gold by President Cyril Ramaphosa in March 2019. And of course, there is the matter of an honorary doctorate.
Many years ago, it was virtually unheard of for a Muslim to become a ballet dancer. And then Dr Johaar Mosaval came along and decided to become one of the world’s greatest ballet masters. He also kept his promise to never forget who he was and that is perhaps, what made him so special. A man who achieved much but found great joy in just being himself, that poor kid born on the dusty streets of District Six, the one who became a star.