Dancers angry over trip fees

Version One co-ordinator Beronice Gabriels.

A Kraaifontein dance group is embroiled in a squabble with a licensed South African Hip Hop body over flight arrangements and prices to an international event later this year.

Version One dance group, of Northpine, accuses Hip Hop Dance South Africa (HHDSA) of inflating the flight package to an event in Las Vegas, America, from Friday August 5 to Tuesday August 16. Version One came fourth in the 2016 national championships in Johannesburg on March 13, but automatically qualified when a second-placed team pulled out of the annual Hip Hop International (HHI) competition in Vegas.

The group has five dancers that have prepared to go to America. Everton van der Westhuizen, a lead dancer of the group, said they had struck their own deal with STA Travel agency, securing a travel package of just over R15 000, including international flights and a domestic flights between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

However, they found themselves blocked by HHDSA head Fairchild Phiri, who insisted they book their flights through the organisation, which wanted to charge more R23 000 and that was only for international flights as they were proposing putting the dancers on a bus between LA and Las Vegas.

Mr Van der Westhuizen showed Northern News WhatsApp exchanges on Friday June 24 between himself and Mr Phiri.

Mr Van der Westhuizen: “Is the R23 818 for flights only? When must deposit be paid?”

Mr Phiri: “Yes, correct… that is for flight only… but for now… we only need R2 500 for both flight and hotel.”

Mr Van der Westhuizen said in further communication with Mr Phiri, the deposit had gone down to R500.

Mr Van der Westhuizen said Mr Phiri had only told him after he had already booked his flights that the HHDSA had made it a policy last year for dance groups to book their flights through it.

“I only saw that policy this year because (Mr Phiri) emailed it to me this year, and after I had booked the flight,” he said.

Mr Van der Westhuizen said it was interesting that he and Mr Phiri had used STA Travel but came out “with different packages”.

His manager, Beronice Gabriels, said she wanted to know who would benefit from the rest of the money.

Mr Van der Westhuizen said the number of participants in the event had since dwindled from 102 dancers to 28.

The HHDSA has since kicked Version One dancers out of the tournament, on the grounds that they booked their flights separately and not through the organisation.

STA wouldn’t comment for this report, but Northern News has a copy of an email STA travel agent Mpume Conco sent to Ms Gabriels on Monday June 20, confirming flight bookings: “All flights booked through STA for the (Cape Town) portion of the group’s total at R19 373.00, including internal flights to Las Vegas…This was confirmed and paid for on May 4 (deposits for international flights) and full payments for internal flights on June 3 and 10. I hope this clarifies any issues you may still have. If you received a different quote from the one above please can you address this with Mr Phiri.”

Initially, on Wednesday April 20, Mr Phiri sent an email to the dance groups, saying the immediate deposit for a ticket would be R4 150. But in the WhatsApp message to Mr Van der Westhuizen two months later, he had brought this number down to R2 500.

This would include luxury coach transportation from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, he wrote.

However Mr Van Westhuizen says that when the remaining dancers complained to South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee’s (SASCOC) about paying more for travel packages that included a six-hour bus trip to Las Vegas instead of a one and a half hour flight, Mr Phiri suddenly changed his tune.

One of the remaining dancers sent him a message from Mr Phiri on Thursday night. It said the dancers would now be flying to Las Vegas instead of taking the bus.

“We will not be going by bus from LA to Las Vegas (6 hours), instead we will be flying (1.30hrs), which I’m sure everyone will be extremely happy (sic).” The message, which Northern News has a copy of, did not not elaborate on what had prompted the about-turn.

Northern News sent questions and reminders to SASCOC but by time of going to print, we had not received a response. Howard Schwartz, head of HHI, speaking from Los Angeles, said the organisation understands that the tour’s expenses include air travel within America.

He confirmed HHI sanctioned the policy for dancers to book their flights through the HHDSA.

Asked about his about-turn on the domestic flights, Mr Phiri asked that the questions be emailed to him, but he didn’t respond to them and he also ignored WhatsApp messages and yesterday evening asked that we liaise with his colleague, Vance de Kock.

Mr De Kock, an executive member of HHDSA, said the decision to change from the bus to a domestic flight had been motivated by the volatility of the rand/dollar exchange rate. Both, he said were similar in cost, but it had been decided to go with the quicker option. We asked why HHDSA had decided to take the bus in the first place if it was longer, but he did not answer the question.

Mr De Kock said HHDSA had decided two years ago that dancers should book flights through the organisation and would not be permitted to book their own.

He claimed he had checked with the STA travel agency and the Version One dancers had only paid R500 on the travel booking for six individuals, even after they kept advising HHDSA that their tickets had been fully paid for by a sponsor.

“When we requested the booking details, it took (Version One) two weeks to provide, then only to see that it was clearly altered by the group leader … This disgruntled individual is negatively affecting the process for all future athlete receiving the opportunity to either receive SA colours or performing on the international stage at the world championships,” he said.

Ms Gabriels disputed this, however, and said her dancers had paid the necessary deposits and that tickets for her dancers had all been fully paid.

She said it was not important how they paid, but what was important is that there had been inconsistencies in the packages offered by HHDSA.

Asked why the number of travelling dancers had gone from 102 to 26, Mr De Kock blamed fluctuations in the rand/dollar exchange.

Mr Van der Westhuizen played a recorded phone call between himself and Mr De Kock, in which the HHDSA executive member says that if HHI allowed the group to go to America without his permission, HHDSA would stop working with the international organiser.

When Northern News confronted Mr De Kock about this, he said if Version One went to the tournament on their own steam without HHDSA sanction it would cause problems between the organisation and HHI, because HHDSA “pays royalties” to the international body and it would not be appropriate for HHI to “go behind our backs” and invite Version One.