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South Africa is making preparations to play host to the 2010 World Cup Soccer Game. And in a nation obsessed with the sport, NPR Charlayne Hunter-Gault has the story of a group of students set on building support for ballet.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It's an early morning rehearsal at the South African Ballet Theater in Johannesburg's city center. At nine years old, SABT, as it is called, is the country's largest professional ballet company.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

HUNTER-GAULT: Despite being put through some rigorous pieces by the ballet master this morning, the dancers are happily preparing for a heavy holiday season of some 88 shows. But there's also an air of anxiety, for unless the company finds sponsors for its budget, it'll have to close down in the next three months, says Iain MacDonald, artistic director of the company.

Mr. IAIN MACDONALD (Artistic Director, South African Ballet Theater): For me, what's at stake is a future of classical ballet in this country.

HUNTER-GAULT: And along with it, perhaps the hopes and dreams of young people.

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HUNTER-GAULT: Young people, like, those here in this community center some 30 minutes away from the city center, in the black township of Soweto.

Ballet teacher Fiona Brown.

Ms. FIONA BROWN (Ballet Teacher): The kids are hungry for anything. They love to learn. And children from everywhere are the same: They want to learn. I don't want them to feel that it's an elite thing. I want them to understand that this is something that's for them.

HUNTER-GAULT: Even though few have proper outfits � often practicing in their school uniforms � the children are excited about getting introduced to classical ballet. The company has established programs that take ballet into this and four other black townships, and has generated a lot of interest among young girls like 13-year-old Lesedi Kanupe.

Ms. LESEDI KANUPE: I think ballet is my type of sport.

HUNTER-GAULT: In a country where the predominant type of sport is soccer, nine-year-old Buwana Sinwaye says he gave it up for ballet.

Mr. BUWANA SINWAYE: Because it really keeps you busy. You love what you doing.

HUNTER-GAULT: It fact, it was out of this kind of love that the South African Ballet Theatre was born. The government-financed, apartheid-era company was closed down by the new black-led government over questionable financial practices.

Iain MacDonald and five other dancers struggled to start a new company. It wasn't always easy, remembers MacDonald. And often he says the little group of dancers performed for nothing. But in time, they garnered support and in 2007, won an award as the Nation Builder of the Year.

MacDonald, now the company's artistic director, thinks the scarcity of funds is the result of monies being diverted to the 2010 World Cup. But the economy may also be a factor. The country is experiencing rising unemployment rates that were high before the global recession, but are now officially recorded at 23.5 percent, representing more than four million jobless, says MacDonald.

Mr. MACDONALD: In South Africa, we are facing a lot of people without work. And I think these kids that are exposed to this art form are then given opportunities. It's job creation, actually, ultimately. Yet and it gives hope for the family to show that their children are going to have a future because they can rest assured that they all have a job.

Now, if we suddenly shut all of this, I think it's not only affecting the children, but it's affecting the families and it's job loss. And I think we need to make it happen so that these kids have a future.

HUNTER-GAULT: Kids like the SABT's Shereen Meraji once was.

HUNTER-GAULT: Shareen is here in this morning's rehearsal as one of the 35 dancers in the SABT company. She got her start in one of the dance outreach companies that came to her poor township of Alexandra. And she says this outreach continues to inspire young children. If the company closed down, she says...

Ms. SHEREEN MERAJI (Dancer, South African Ballet Theatre): Well, it will damage them really badly 'cause they love what they're doing, like the ballet and the outreach. So, after doing the outreach, they want to go somewhere. So, it's important for the future generation.

HUNTER-GAULT: Says Iain MacDonald...

Mr. MACDONALD: It's people's lives that are at stake. I think their dreams and they've been exposed to what it's like to be on stage in the theater. To see this all shattered, I think it would be like cutting someone's arm off, quite frankly. You know, for some of these kids, it's a way of life. You know, and to be deprived of that, I think is just - would be so, so sad for this country and for these poor young artists.

(Soundbite of music)

HUNTER-GAULT: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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