“Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Work” – Dancing Queen Nikhita Winkler Gets Candid About Her Craft

The very ambitious and passionate social entrepreneur, dancer and choreographer, Nikhita Winkler, is unarguably one of Namibia’s top dance guru’s having choreographed numerous theatre projects including, Every Woman (2019) by Senga Brockerhof and Ntozake Shange’s For Coloured Girls directed by Jenny Kandenge.

Winkler, who is of German, Arabic, Sotho and Baster ethnicity, is the owner of the Nikhita Winkler Dance Theatre & Project and has worked on various dance projects both internationally and in Namibia, including the Windhoek International Dance Festival (2017 & 2018) and Kabawil cultural exchange program in Germany in 2019.

Her longest-standing project has been one which started in 2017 with a Dutch funding organization called ‘Orange Babies Foundation’. The project, which is under her dance project and recently funded by GIZ, is based in Otjomuise and teaches dance to vulnerable children who are mainly in primary school. The project helps empower the children towards a healthier, more conscious, and connected way of life while creating a safe space in which they can develop a sense of identity and an avenue to build their dreams.

Winkler is educated in Namibia, Norway and USA and currently hold an honours degree in dance performance from Skidmore College, USA. Namib Insider! sat down with Winkler to talk about her craft.

Nikhita Winkler at Kolmannskuppe
Nikhita Winkler at Kolmanskop (Image: Kark Leck)

Let’s go back to genesis, how and when did you fall in love with dance?

I think, before I fell in love with dance, I fell in love with music. My family tells me that I could never dance but I was not afraid to express myself, especially when the music moved me. I was unstoppable and shameless. My training started when I was 5 years old and that was when I fell in love with Ballet.

You are a dancer and a dance instructor. How does teaching dance differ from being a dancer yourself?

Being a teacher and being a dancer is very different, and I am glad you asked.
Maya Angelou says, “I am not a writer who teaches, but a teacher who writes.” A teacher needs to have the skills for teaching which are; sufficient knowledge and experience of the art to understand its development on various bodies and have confidence in that knowledge; direction and measurable goals; patience; observational skills; leadership skills; and a love for teaching. To be a teacher is special. Teachers carry a huge responsibility. They are supposed to be role models to their students. A bad teacher can destroy the love of dance and the creativity of the student, and a good teacher can inspire, empower and support students as they learn and grow into the individuals (or dancers) we want them to become.

Although both the teacher and the dancer are learning from each other in a healthy exchange, the dancer is the subject in focus. The dancer is trained to master his/her body to create and perform movement derived either from source energy or an external direction, such as the teacher/ choreographer. The responsibility of the dancer is to develop the strength, flexibility and agility required to confidently perform the work of art.

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(Image: Rob Tucker)

You choreograph dancers from various ages, what is the difference between teaching dance to children and doing choreography for older, more experienced dancers?

When you work with children, you have to become a child again. You have to enter their world and understand what stimulates them to want to learn and what keeps them engaged (things like colours, costumes, and stories). Children don’t have the attention span of adults or trained dancers. They lose interest fast, and they are sensitive to how you speak to them, not to say that adults aren’t, but words can be more impactful for children. Therefore, positive reinforcement is important when you work with kids to encourage them to continue working hard. Oh, and they love playtime.

Older, more experienced students are easier to direct and instruct. Most often they understand why they are there and they need something more constructive and measurable to work on. Trained dancers should be able to execute your vision and assist you in the process of developing it. It is easier to assign tasks to older, more experienced dancers, but the older the dancer, the more difficult it becomes to draw creativity and authentic movement from them. A child’s creativity is pure.

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Nikhita Winkler teaching at her dance academy (Image: Tim Heubscle)

Which do you like best?

I prefer to work with older, more experienced dancers because I don’t really have the personality to work with children. I don’t think I have spent enough time being a child myself and I am way too serious about technique and discipline that I tend to bore kids with repetitions.

When choreographing a piece how do you approach the creation process?

This is how my creative process looks like in a summarized version: My process involves a lot of improvisation to find movement. I often create by chance and definitely in the moment. While I am still building the movement vocabulary, some days require a constant change in music, especially when the music and my energy that day are not connecting. In this case, playing one song limits me from finding new ways to move or stagnates the process. Other days, the music is good enough to take me through from the beginning to the end. When this happens, the music and my energy are connected.

Inspiration can come from anything and at any time; a theme, a song, a picture, a conversation, an interesting object, relationships, stories, literally anything. Being creative means creating something from nothing. Isn’t that beautiful? When I was in college, my most productive time to create was when walking from my student house to the dance department, a 10min walk. It is in the moments that I am silent that my mind starts to do all the work and I just have to observe and remember. I work with a lot of faith. I believe my creative process has a special ingredient called, ‘magic’. This special ingredient is added to the process when you are stuck and you give the work a breathing chance.

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(Image: Alex Ross)

Do you have any pre-performance/choreography superstitions or rituals?

I do!
Rituals are important to me because my relationship with dance is spiritual.
It’s important for me to feel ready with the work before I perform it so that it is performed in ‘no mind’. In order to get to ‘no mind’, one needs to rehearse so much that you don’t need your mind when you are on stage. You can allow your spirit to take control of your body while trusting that the body has retained the muscle memory of the work. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Well, I have to admit, it takes discipline to get this ready for every performance. I have only been this ready a few times in my life for various reasons.

I pray before every performance and if it’s a group performance we pray together. Thereafter, I pass on this energy ball. Warming up before a performance is crucial. I focus on core strength warmups because a strong core keeps you balanced, makes you lighter and more confident. I have to get a feel for the stage and the room I am performing in prior to the performance to fill it with positive energy and leave my guardian angles where the audience will be seated. On the day of the performance, I want to do nothing else but get ready for the stage. I don’t like to have any other responsibilities other than what is required for me to fully embody and prepare for the performance. Neither do I like close contact with anyone before I go on stage to protect my energy.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a choreographer?

Overcoming the belief that I am a bad choreographer. I am never satisfied with my work and I know why that is. I am a perfectionist but also a procrastinator. I find that too little research and planning goes into the work that I create and research is an important part of the process, especially with big projects. Spending more time studying what I do and why I do it has become a very important focus on the work I will be creating.

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Nikhita Winkler and dance partner, West Uarije (Image: Tim Heubscle)

What qualities do you look for in a dancer?

Passion.
Martha Graham says, “Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.” I also like hardworking dancers, because hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work.

You have choreographed for numerous pieces. How do you decide to be part of a piece? What are you looking at before joining a production as choreographer and I suppose as a dancer?

Association is very important for me. I will not work with someone whom I do not want to be associated with. Good leadership and professionalism are key. I find it hard to work under poor leadership because it frustrates me and I don’t gain anything from it. I won’t work with people who don’t have respect for my art. However, I love a challenge because with that comes experience. Projects that are new and challenging are exciting to be a part of. If I see a challenge, I grab it.

In terms of music, what style of music do you like more and more likely to be part of?

Local is lekker. I believe in building products of our own. Made by Namibians.
I have a policy in my dance school to prioritize local music in all our performances because, in that, we can build more collaborative work and support the growth of our arts, culture and entertainment industries.

But personally, I prefer nothing that is trendy. I listen to music that feeds my spirit such as; Sade, Bon Iver, Rhye, Hishishi Papa, Fkj & Classicals from around the world.

Who are some of your dance influences?

Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Bill T Jones, Twyla Tharp and Isadora Duncan are some of the pioneers whose works I have studied and who have inspired me. As for more recent influencers, there is Galen Hooks & Yanis Marshall.

What inspired you to start your own dance academy?

It was a childhood dream. Something to give to my country.

Alex Ross Photo
(Image: Alex Ross)

What is a common misconception people have about dancing, especially pertaining to the dance scene in Namibia?

That there is no or little work. As much as I know, dance has been keeping me on my toes because there is a lot of work, but we have to create the platforms and not wait for someone to do it.

I know the world is faced with the Covid-19 pandemic that might possibly stall creative activities for who knows how long, but do you have any upcoming projects in the pipeline?

I just finished a 21-day stretch challenge which was live on our Instagram page. As from the 27th April, we will be having live sessions every Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Other than that, there are some big projects pending, but unfortunately, I cannot speak about them right now.

Lastly, when you are not dancing or teaching dance, what do you do?

I love to be outdoors, hiking, eating out at my favourite spots, colouring in mandalas, training (boxing or working out), spending silent time with myself, reading and writing.