Kids with a knack

More than a measure of talent to go around


By Chandrea Serebro

Songs making a statement

At fifteen, Shmuli Brill is no stranger to singing for a crowd. He loves music, and the ears of his listeners love him. “Music is my best friend,” he says, an old friend he loves spending time with. Shmuli is somewhat understated. He says he “enjoys singing”; it is his passion. One Friday night a few months before his bar mitzvah, Shmuli was offered to sing Yigdal at the end of the Friday night service. “It was a nice experience,” he says in his unassuming manner, one that soon lead not only to him singing it every week, but to becoming a household name for Jewish music listeners in Joburg.

On his bar mitzvah, Shmuli lead the Friday night service, and he was soon singing Kabbalat Shabbat and maariv every week, then singing a solo during Chazzan Ezra Altschuler’s Shabbat Mussaf service and singing duets with him in shul, before finding himself serenading a bride and groom under the chupah – a joy that is unparalleled. With experienced cantor and wedding singer Ezra Altschuler as his manager and singing partner, Shmuli has been gaining more singing experience and nuance under his tutelage, which has come in handy as his voice begins to break and change, a hint at what his future will sound like.

“When I sing, it feels like I visit a different world and as soon as I am finished, I come back to real life. Music is my passion and I would love to carry on singing and dealing with music for the rest of my life.” This is one understated singer making a statement, seeing success doing what he loves. “I believe that in order to succeed in a musical career, one has to put in all of the effort possible. If you do not have time, make time for it; if you did not have the greatest performance, keep trying until you succeed!”

Dreaming with your feet

One may define dance as movement of a person’s feet and body usually accompanied by music, but to Geena Cohen, dance is so much more. To Geena, dance is everything. “It is like being on top of the world; it is my lifeline when I am faced with any difficulties and challenges. I feel that when life induces too much stress, too much noise, and too much rush, it is wondrous to put on my headphones, click play, and lose myself in the music and dance.” At only 18 years old, Geena has been dancing for 11 years, having dreamed of being a ballerina since she was a little girl and starting ballet at seven with the Osrin Goldsmith Dance Academy. A few years later, the studio introduced hip-hop and Geena immediately knew that this was the style for her, hip-hop fast becoming her all-time passion. She puts this down to the impact that dance can have – no matter one’s skill, whether you are a competition dancer or not, “the beautiful art of dance will leave one changed for the better.” Dance, says Geena, is a discipline that requires a high level of commitment, determination, and sacrifice, and “blessed with parents who support and motivate, who create an environment in which I can succeed”, Geena’s dedication has paid off.

Wanting to expand her “dance vocabulary and experience different genres of hip-hop”, Geena joined the Chyper SA Dance Academy with which she participated in many local competitions and was privileged enough to be part of the South African Team that competed in Croatia at the World Dance Masters competition in 2017. “Dance has allowed me to express my emotions when words are insufficient. It is a medium through which I can show the world who I really am. Dance has taught me to set goals; it has taught me that there is always going to be somebody better; it has taught me about perseverance. But, most importantly, it has taught me about myself. Dance is the hidden language of the soul; it is dreaming with your feet.”

More than half a clue

It’s a hard knock life for some seven year olds, like that famous old redhead. But, since seeing Annie on stage, seven-year-old Amber Kaganson has discovered not only her dream, but that she does indeed have the talent to follow it and find success, just like her inspirational character did. Amber loves singing, dancing, and acting, and is a “natural” on stage. She spends her extra-curricular time doing ballet, modern, drama, and musical theatre (some of which she has been doing since before she was three), refining her G-d-given talent. Amber’s defining role and her first professional performance was to play Roo in the production of Winnie the Pooh at The People’s Theatre in Braamfontein, after an “impromptu audition” – which highlighted her natural talent – got her the part.

Her talent seems to be genetic – her mother too played at the People’s Theatre in her youth, and Amber is grateful to be following in her footsteps, with so much “encouragement and support” from her. “Why do I do it? Because it is my dream, and I am making it a reality,” says Amber, and she aspires to finding herself one day as a “professional on Broadway and the West-End”. “I feel so grateful to Hashem for blessing me with my talents and giving me the opportunities to use them. And to my parents, who always encourage me and support me, and schlep me all the way to countless lessons, rehearsals, and shows. I hope to continue doing what I love for a very, very long time.” Even if that means “lots of hard work and long hours”, which she believes is what it takes, along with “discipline, love, passion, grit, resilience, and repetitive practice”. “I definitely do have these qualities. For my role as Roo I had to wear a very thick, hot costume and jump for two hours! It was exhausting and boiling – but so worth it.”

Giving new meaning to golden boots

It’s probably every boys dream to play for the Premier Boys Soccer League at the age of 14, so when Chloe Valkin’s self-same dream came true she was the proudest girl among the boys. Just like she was at the Umhlanga Sands on holiday at the age of four, when she started playing soccer and her father said “she’s actually got half a clue”. She then went on to start practicing in earnest at Little Champs, and at seven she was given a chance in the Sandton boys under 7b team. Now, playing for the Warriors in the Jhb Boys Under 14 Super League, Chloe has played around the world, nurturing and improving her talent by training a few times a week since she was six and keeping her love of the game fresh. “I love kicking around and trying new things in the garden. I also played many other sports, which helps develop all the different strengths that compliment soccer. And there are so many world class players on TV that one can pick up a fortune just by watching them.”

When Chloe was 11 she played in the boys Cordial Cup tournament in Salzburg (which is Europe’s leading under 11 boys tournament) against the Bayern Munich Under 11 team at their headquarters in Munich (where she had one of her best games ever – “the coach told our coach he would have signed me if I was a boy!”). She was vice captain of the Northern Johannesburg boys team at the inter-provincial tournament in 2015 and 2016, and she was offered to go and live full-time at the Wingate Institute in Israel to join the girls national under 17 programme. Chloe was recently selected for the SA girls U17 team, known as Bantwana Bantwana, and will be travelling to Botswana to play their first World Cup qualifier. Quite a CV for a girl in a sport that has yet to see a strong female presence in South Africa, but one thing for sure is that despite not being signed because she was a girl, Chloe can certainly hold her own against even the most talented of boys and the only thing extraordinary about her playing soccer is her skill at it.

“As much as I love soccer, it can be frustrating as girls’ soccer in this country (in fact girls’ sport generally) is still developing, unlike in the rest of the western world where soccer is the most popular sport among girls. I’ve been lucky enough to play in boys’ tournaments in Spain and Germany and there it is completely normal for girls to play and no one thinks it’s out of the ordinary. Most girls there play on girls teams and there are thousands of them.” Chloe dreams of playing for Man United but with no girls on their team, “it’s not going to happen!” she says. So realistically, she says, a dream within her reach is either to play for college in the USA or to play professionally overseas, just so long as she isn’t letting her talent slip past her – “I’m really grateful for my talent, but also scared as I don’t want to waste it.”

Yet, as good as Chloe is, as extraordinarily different for a South African girl, she tries not to let it define her, concentrating equally on her academics and friends as well as playing a number of other sports, including swimming, golf, tennis, athletics, netball, and touch rugby. But, still, her first love will be soccer. “Like pretty much anything else in life you need to enjoy it, otherwise you aren’t going to be prepared to spend the hours you need on the training field. Then you need the dedication and, probably most importantly, you need a bit of luck and help from Hashem to stay injury free.” But once you have those things, the sky is the limit (even if you are a girl). “When I’m playing, I just forget about everything and just feel the sheer joy of the speed and skill involved. With the wind in my hair and the ball at my feet there is no better feeling…except maybe a cheeky kosher Nandos!”

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