'Ballet," says Andile Ndlovu, "is not for sissies." And he should know: this 23-year-old South African ballet dancer has a fierce self-drive and self-belief - not to mention Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev - to thank for a career that sees him poised to enter his third season with the prestigious Washington Ballet in the US.
The rising star is back home, preparing to perform in the International Ballet Gala in Johannesburg, having dazzled Cape Town audiences on Wednesday.
The past year has been a good one for Ndlovu, who was raised in Soweto and Ennerdale.
In 2010, he received the Metro DC Dance Award for best emerging performer and the special jury prize at the Cape Town International Ballet Competition. Recently he won a silver medal at the Boston International Ballet Competition.
When I spoke to him about 10 days ago, he was in Mongolia, performing the role of the Jester in Swan Lake with the Mongolian National Ballet.
The Jester was one of his first professional roles - he danced it with the SA Ballet Theatre in 2007.
The desire to dance took hold of him after his sister encouraged him to take Latin American and ballroom classes. But when he witnessed the power, grace and strength of Baryshnikov and Nureyev on television, he became instantly captivated by ballet.
"It was a total wonder," he relates.
"It took me by surprise - when I saw them, I was stunned. Their virtuosity, athleticism and can-do mentality ... it was an awesome experience.
"But I didn't know where to go to take ballet. I was playing soccer at school, but I liked the idea of ballet. Even then, I looked past the tights and stereotypes."
After his dance teacher in Ennerdale, Patricia Pallman, introduced him to ballet to improve his Latin American technique, he began training with Ballet Theatre Afrikan (BTA) at the age of 15. "My friends said they didn't know why I was doing this. I said, 'You'll see.' I was determined; I had a goal and a mission to dance overseas. I'd get teased - but they came to every performance and were always supportive. That's what I call friends: they beat you up and lift you up."
With the encouragement of BTA's Martin Schönberg, he blossomed as a ballet dancer. At the age of 19 he was spotted by Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet. Webre was a judge at the 2008 SA International Ballet Competition, where Ndlovu tied for the gold medal in the contemporary category. Being invited to join an international company was the fulfilment of a dream.
He has experienced some culture shock in the US - "Americans need to learn manners," he says and laughs - and he had to learn a challenging new repertoire.
"I miss the braais back home," he says. "The American barbecue is not the same. I miss South African food and I miss having people smile at you."
Ndlovu has evolved his own style, and is starting to choreograph his own works. "Often you think of male dancers as being rigid and stiff, but I'm from SA and we don't move like that. We don't stop and go; we just go with the music. My style has more movement in it; I use movements from my culture in my contemporary work."
Says Webre: "Andile has taken Washington DC by storm. He dances with an intensity which is exhilarating. He is fascinating to watch. And he shows great promise as a choreographer - the work is pliant, inventive and highly personal. Andile will contribute meaningfully to the field over time."
During the International Ballet Gala, Ndlovu will be joined by top dancers from around the world in pas de deux and showpieces from ballets such as Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, Don Quixote and The Nutcracker.
He will dance with Japanese ballerina Tamako Miyakazi, and will perform the tongue-in-cheek male duet from the contemporary ballet Great Galloping Gottschalk with fellow Washington Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack.
"I'm self-driven," he says. "I accept challenges and failure; I know how to climb up again and get better. That's how I've been surviving in the ballet world - I learn fast. I absorb everything."
Aspiring dancers, he advises, should "really believe in themselves and keep pushing; they shouldn't look at where the stairs finish but beyond that".
He wants to "keep doing ballet and proving people wrong".
"I'm a South African person who's black and I do ballet among the stars of the world. My goal is to put South Africa on the map in that respect."