When Hangberg resident Lionel “Akes” Ackermann was growing up in Lavender Hill, he became an easy target for the neighbourhood children.
Not only was he born without a leg, but there were no fingers on his one hand.
To young children, oblivious to the effects of making fun of others, his different appearance was a source of entertainment, and while he could always rely on the support of his four brothers, the constant torment was too much to bear and he eventually made the decision to leave school.
His family decided to relocate to Hangberg in 2010, and it was here that Lionel’s interest was piqued by hip hop. The music was energetic and spoke to young people, and despite his physical disabilities, Lionel could not help but move to the beat.
“People used to tell me that I cannot dance, but I believed in myself. I used to watch dance movies, and I would try the tricks myself,” the 26-year-old told the Sentinel.
His obvious talent for dancing – albeit on crutches – soon came to be known around Hangberg, and he joined a hip hop crew called Versatile, yet initially his fellow dancers were sceptical.
“At first, they would not let me perform, but then, one day, one of the dancers got an injury on the day of the performance, and I was there.
They asked me to perform and I’ve never looked back.”
Lionel’s ascent as a performer has been helped in no small part by the Unmute Dance Company (UDACO), an integrated company of artists with mixed abilities or “disabilities”, whose vision is to inspire the inclusion of disabled people into mainstream society.
“In 2015, my aunt told me about the integrated dance company, and she also gave me money to go to the audition. I did not know the style of dance; I thought it was ballet dancing! But it was so nice to be part of the training programme, and the Unmute artistic director saw something in me. The programme lasted three months, and two from the programme were chosen to perform and train with the company. I was one of the two.”
Aligning with the company also presented Lionel with another opportunity – one that will live long in the memory.
“One of the dancers who was supposed to go to Switzerland with the company got sick, and I had to replace him.
“Going overseas was always a dream for me, and I always told my mother that one day my dream will come through, and it did. I really saw the other side of life. We performed in Basel in Switzerland. Unfortunately I picked up an injury, so I did not do all the performances, but the company made a lot of contacts and looked at possible collaborations.”
While it has already been a remarkable journey for Lionel, he is in no doubt that he has a further role to play in inspiring youth in Hangberg.
“Where I live, there’s a lot of poverty and the youth use drugs because they don’t have any hope. By seeing me, by reading this story, one or two kids might see the other possible life for them. I know people see disabled people as people who can’t do anything for themselves, but my story might inspire them also.”