Norwich, GB 13 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)



Born in Cape Town, South Africa, to Cassieum Mosaval, a construction worker and his wife, Galila, a seamstress. He was the oldest of 10 children.

The family were of Malaysian descent and lived in the poor area called District Six. They were Muslims. Under the apartheid system in South Africa, they were classed as ‘coloureds’. Johaar always refered to himself as ‘black’.

At school, he was an extremely talented gymnast and loved performing in plays and pantomimes. Once, when a teacher asked the children what they wanted to do when they grew up, Johaar said, “ballet dancer” – and the whole class laughed at him.

To add insult to injury, he was also ridiculed for his height – or lack of it. He was tiny.

Another teacher, Rose Ulrich, had spotted his talent, and recommended him to her friend Dulcie Howes, the grand dame of South African dancing – the country’s leading prima ballerina.

Dulcie Howes (courtesy Sunday Times Live)

Dulcie invited him to join her university dance school, but his parents refused him permission.

However, an article appeared in a local magazine about him. It was read by two elders at the local Azzaviva Mosque. They summoned Johaar.

“They asked me ‘show us what ballet is all about’. Lucky for me, that morning I was working on my agility exercises, and I showed them. They were stunned.”

So impressed were they, that they intervened and persuaded his parents to let him go – on the condition that he never forgot his religion.

Apartheid rules applied even in the ballet school. He had to stand on his own at the back and was never allowed to perform with anybody else. There was a line painted on the floor and he was never allowed to cross it.

Nevertheless, he was noted for being strong with a flexible physique – and with a determination to succeed.

Dancer (courtesy The Guardian)

It was a tough time for Johaar. “It was very, very hard, difficult, painful. And many a time I felt, shall I continue with this life? But I continued. I wanted to dance.”

Then, the English Sadler’s Wells ballet company came to South Africa. Dulcie persuaded leading performers Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin to watch Johaar.

Johaar had to be sneaked into the ‘Whites Only’ Alhambra Theatre to give his performance.

Alhambra Theatre Cape Town (courtesy Flickr)

The ballet stars were so impressed that they offered him a scholarship at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School in England.

The local Muslim Progressive Society had a whip round to pay for his passage to England. His parents refused to contribute.

At this point, Johaar had never even travelled outside of Cape Town.

Later on, Johaar said his parents they claimed they were too poor to pay, but he knew it was really because they disapproved. “As the eldest of 10 children and being a male dancer, my decisions were frowned upon because they were unheard of.”

Dancing in England was very different. “I felt free. I felt fantastic. Because you know, at the university ballet school, I had to stand right at the back, alone. Now I was free to stand anyway that I wanted to.”

This didn’t mean that he didn’t suffer racial prejudice in England. He did – but not on the same scale as at home. Ballerina Brenda Last said, “When you think of what they were going through in South Africa and what he had to put up with here too, it was tough on him.”

Johaar loved London. “I excelled tremendously. I was the first black student at the school and they were very impressed with my progress.”

He graduated to the Sadler’s Wells Ballet proper in 1952. He was small, slight and noted for very fast footwork. He was given his first principle role just 2 weeks after joining the company. No other dancer before, or since, has been promoted so quickly.

Soon, Sadler’s Wells became the Royal Ballet. Johaar was amongst the ‘first persons of colour’ to appear on stage.

His first major solo role was in Benjamin Britten’s ‘Gloriana’, performed for Queen Elizabeth the Second’s Coronation, at the Royal Opera House.

Johaar performed in front of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Truman, President De Gaulle, Prime Minister Nehru and, “every king and queen in the world. Dancing on stage you could see the flickering of the tiaras.”

His 3-minute performance was so outstanding that the audience demanded more. “My goodness me, to extend the solo dance was quite something. It was already so exhausting but I was honoured – and I kept going.”

After the performance, he was introduced to the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Margaret. He said, “I was floating on cloud nine.”

Johaar went on to perform a leading role in Frederick Ashton’s ‘Blue Boy’, as a Can-Can dancer in Leonide Massines ‘La Boutique Fantasque’ and as the Bluebird in ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

Jeanetta Laurence, who danced with him said, He was a terrific performer, really engaging on stage and had a completely natural theatricality about him.”

Johaar excelled at comic performances such as Jasper the Pot Boy in ‘Pineapple Poll’ and Bootface the Clown in ‘The Lady and the Fool’. “As the little clown you had so much empathy with him.” (Brenda Last)

In 1958, he was promoted to be Principal Dancer.

With the Royal Ballet, Johaar toured the world.

In 1960, they were booked for a tour of South Africa. They were advised to leave Johaar in England. It caused uproar.

There were questions asked in the British Parliament and demonstrations on the streets of Cape Town.

The tour went ahead – without Johaar.

In the 1960s, Johaar learned his mother had died when he was performing in Inverness. After the show, the Queen Mother, who was in the audience, presented him with a bouquet of heather, to express her sympathy at his bereavement.

Johaar was asked to take ballerina Brenda Last under his wing. Within one week of her joining the company, they were dancing together – and became regular partners on stage. She said, “I found him a wonderful person to work with…he was someone you could really rely on as a partner.”

Brenda Last (courtesy eBay)

She added, “It was absolutely wonderful to do the Neopolitan Dance with him in Swan Lake, with his brilliant footwork and very fast speed. It almost brought the house down at times.”

He danced with all the leading ballerinas of the time, including Margot Fonteyn, and worked with the top choreographers including Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and Ninette De Valois. Johaar was even compared to Nijinsky.

His greatest performance is regarded as being Puck in Ashton’s ‘The Dream’, in 1967. The Guardian called it, “most captivating and dazzling.”

Puck (courtesy The Stage)

In 1975, he became the very first dancer to be awarded the Professional Dancers Teaching Diploma – and he decided teaching was the direction he wanted to go in.

He was offered an immediate opportunity. The South African government invited him home, to set up a ballet school in Cape Town.

Johaar resigned from the Royal Ballet after 25 years and returned to South Africa.

There, he was made the first black ballet school inspector and he opened his own academy.

Very quickly, it was made clear he would only be allowed to teach black children. He resigned as an inspector – so the government immediately shut his ballet school down.

He moved it to a segregated area, but allowed students of all colour and races to attend. He believed art transcended politics.

In 1977, he was given the ‘Winston Churchill Award’. This meant he could fund a lengthy trip to New York where he studied modern dance at the Martha Graham School, and jazz dance at the Ailey School.

That same year, Johaar became the first black performer at the Nico Malan Opera House in Cape Town (now the Artscape Theatre). His contract stated that he was not allowed to touch any of the white dancers.

Nico Malan Opera House (courtesy Facebook)

Also in 1977, he was awarded a Queen Elizabeth 2nd Silver Jubilee Medal for, “Services to the United Kingdom.”

Queen Elizabeth 2nd Silver Jubilee Medal (courtesy Wikipedia)

He was finally recognized by the South African government in 2019, when he was awarded the highest possible honour, the ‘Gold Category of the Order of Ikhamanga’. This can only be given by the president and was presented to Johaar by Cyril Ramaphosa.

“Going up there and taking the president’s hand, and being awarded this prestigious award, was one of the best moments and made me be proud to be South African.”

Johaar was also awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cape Town.

At the University of Cape Town (courtesy UCT Humanities)

In 2023, the Artscape Theatre put on a dance spectacular about Johaar’s life, entitled ‘Dreaming Dance in District Six’. He was invited to the premiere.

The show was opened by the South African Finance Minister, Trevor Manvel, who said in his speech, “There are some icons who stand out because they were able to break through – Johaar was able to break through.”

When Johaar died, author Diana Ferrus, who had written a book about him, said, “His legacy tells us of going through hardships. Living under apartheid wasn’t easy. For someone to have a dream and pursue that dream through all those challenges and then to excel and become a worldwide ballet dancer – that’s a legacy.”

Choreographer Basil Appollis, who arranged ‘Dreaming Dance in District Six’, said, “I was totally in awe and in reverence of him and his achievements.”

His life was summed up by Anroux Marais, South Africa’s Minister for Culture and Sport. “A story of triumph in a dark time in our history.”

The Royal Ballet said, “A man of such short stature became a giant in the ballet world.”

Johaar is survived by just two of his sisters.

RIP – Rising (above) Institutional Prejudice


Previous Article


Next Article


You might be interested in …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *