Smiling and dancing his way to the top

Ismaeel 'Smiley' Dean.

The dazzling sounds and traditional minstrel beat travel through the air really fast, alerting people to the oncoming troupe, but in front, dressed in his tall feathers, colourful sequined uniform and armed with a bright smile is the drum major, who will be left with the task of setting the right tempo for the rest of the team.

Ismaeel “Smiley” Dean from Hanover Park is always the first person who captures the eye of onlookers.

With his back-breaking moves and comical reactions, he has built a strong reputation for himself over the years. Mr Dean was previously of the Pennsylvannians Minstrel Band, blowing the trumpet and creating music for everybody to enjoy, but his skin was crawling and his feet could not stop tapping and it soon drove him up the wall.

“It was working on my nerves that I was creating music for everybody else to enjoy. I was not enjoying it and I wanted to enjoy the music. I had to do something about it.

“I loved blowing the trumpet, but I hated the fact that I could not enjoy the music I was creating,” he said.

His love for minstrels started at a very young age, but his love for the role of drum major also known as the “voorloeper”, was sparked when he first laid his hand on a uniform and interacted with a drum major at the stadium.

“I was holding my father’s hand, the left one, and with my right hand, I reached out and touched a drum major’s uniform and that would forever change me.

“I was blown away – those feathers, those colours and that smile – it was amazing and I knew I wanted to one day lead the troupe like that,” Mr Dean said.

However, his role as a drum major started at a very late stage in his career, having represented the likes of the Beach Boys from Athlone in 1992, at the age of two, and then going on to represent other teams. His big break came in 2011, when he could no longer resist the beat and he decided to take the initiative and approach the owners of the Ashwin Willemse Orient Community Entertainers from Sherwood Park.

“I couldn’t take it anymore, because I was not enjoying being part of the band. I knocked on the door one night, asked to see the owner and told him that I wanted to dance.

“He invited me into the yard where there were about 30 people sitting. The owner came out with a backtrack and said I must dance. For the first few minutes, I stood there looking at these people and then I just broke into a dance and it went up from there,” he said.

In his first year as a drum major, Mr Dean walked away with a second prize, but caught the eye of many other troupes and the following year, they came knocking. In 2012, the now renamed Cape Argus D6 Entertainers approached Mr Dean and chose him to lead their troupe through the streets of Cape Town and on the stadium.

He bagged his debut first prize for the team, a moment he said he would never forget.

“I was so overwhelmed. I just wanted to cry and I was just so happy. There were tears, smiles and everything that night, because I went after this opportunity myself and to have achieved a first prize so early, it was great,” Mr Dean added.

He made that role his own, perfecting move after move and adding a number of facial expressions to his arsenal, making sure that he was recognised at competitions every year.

“My role is to lead the pack. Before you see anybody in the troupe, you see the colours, feathers, moves and that famous smile. It’s a feeling one cannot describe – it looks like I am just dancing, but there is so much history, passion, determination, culture and drive behind what we do.

“It’s not just dancing,” said Mr Dean, who is an executive chauffeur driver during the day.

In 2016, due to his growing popularity, he even made a cameo appearance in the Satin to Sequins production staged at the Joseph Stone Auditorium and represented the Mother City Entertainers earlier that year, before returning to the Cape Argus D6 Entertainers.

His efforts were even recognised on an international level, having been chosen to represent the
7 Steps Minstrel Entertainers, who travel to Seychelles each year to perform.

For Mr Dean, the feeling of stepping out onto the tar for the first time creates butterflies in his stomach, but that does not last for too long as the music takes over.

“This is in my blood; it’s part of my culture and I don’t think I will ever be able to get rid of that feeling.

“People must learn to understand the role – it’s not just about picking up a stick and dancing. You need to win over the crowd, lead your team and set the right tone for the rest of the troupe,” Mr Dean said.

“In order for your team to be the best, you have to be led by the best. I am not bragging, but I do think I am good – just because I do this with so much passion.”

This is part of an ongoing Tatler series which focuses on people from around the city involved in the Cape minstrel tradition.