• Danielle Bitton

The Road Less Travelled - Part 1

In grade 3, my class had to memorise a poem to recite to the school at our morning assembly, I must have been 9 at the time and even though my memory fails me at the best of times it managed to hold on to these words.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I never realised it at the young age of 9, but these words would, in fact, shape my destiny.

My mother grew up in Newlands, it was cold and Calvinistic and she never felt like she fitted in. She spent her breaks at school staring at the Holiday Inn Hotel across the field wondering where those tourists were coming from and imagining a whole life outside of the prison she found herself in. Winters were cold and she was told by her mother that she needed to reduce (lose weight). She felt starved of love and food, as her mother used to lock the fridge and she was served boiled diet food when the rest of the family ate a hearty supper.

There was a painting in her house of a red flamenco dancer, dancing in a circle of people playing music and clapping, it had such a sense of warmth and she felt so alive when she looked at it, she thought, "if someone painted this scene, then there must be a place out there with this feeling with this spirit and energy which was so alive.

She was relieved when her parents sent her to Israel at 19 after school and for the first time in her life she found that feeling and felt alive.

She was staying on a Kibbutz full of South Africans but preferred to stick with the locals. She met my father who was 17 at the time, on a bus while travelling to visit a friend and asked him for directions. He had such nice manners for an Israeli, he actually got off the bus with her to show her where to go.

A week later she bumped into him again in the old city of Jerusalem and had a lovely friendly chat, then both of them went on their way. The 70's Jerusalem was a melting pot of different cultures, the movie Saturday Night Fever had just come out and the local Levantine men wore tailored trousers, and tight fitting shirts. They had afros and strutted around in style just like John Travolta, my mother was in heaven.

As fate would have it, ten days later they bumped into each other at the central post office. He asked my mother for her number, but the thought of waiting next to the phone hoping it would ring was too much for her, so she asked him for his number instead, she also happened to mention which youth hostel she was staying at. Unfortunately she lost his number and was absolutely devastated, so she decided to wait at the central bus station in Jerusalem for the entire day hoping she would see him like a needle in a haystack, but there was no sign of Shlomo.

The hostel she was staying at was run by Eskimos and she gave them strict instructions that Shlomo was the man she was going to marry (she had probably spent a total of 1 hr with him, but was certain) and if he phoned her, they were to insist that he leave his number and if he showed up, they had to knock on her door urgently to warn her. 2 weeks went by and she had given up hope and found herself another boyfriend Ibrahim, who she liked to call "Avi" (the Israeli Jewish version). One day they received a knock on the door from the Eskimo who told her King Solomon (Shlomo) had arrived.

My mother was so excited, she kicked Ibrahim out and got herself together to meet her King, who was waiting in the lobby. She had been waiting for this moment but now she was conflicted and froze, Shlomo was waiting downstairs and poor "Avi" was outside upset. The Eskimo came knocking at the door once again shouting at her to take a phone call immediately at the front desk, Ibrahim wouldn't stop calling. She walked downstairs sheepishly with the Eskimo to answer the phone glanced at my father and gave him a brief smile, he must have thought "this girl is very strange'.

"Avi" began yelling at my mother so come see him outside immediately or he was coming in, well that would have been a catastrophe like no other, so she went to speak to him outside, wait it gets better!

At this very moment the police showed up outside the hostel and assumed that my mother an "Avi" were doing a drug deal, they ordered my mother to go upstairs and show them her passport. they searched everyone's rooms and found a piece of Hashish wrapped in foil in my mother's coat pocket. She swore she had no idea it was drugs, she really thought it was a piece of chocolate. if you know my mother you would know what a chocoholic she is and that she doesn't even drink let alone take drugs. The police dragged her downstairs in handcuffs as she looked at Shlomo completely mortified.

Being the "Yeled Tov Yerushalayim" (goodie too shoes Jerusalem boy) that he was, my father was in a complete state of shock, what had he gotten himself into? He ended up bailing my mother out of jail the next day and she sat down with him and told him to please give her a chance, "This was all a misunderstanding, please just give me 1 week of your time and if you don't like me after that, we can go our separate ways." In my mother's mind she knew this was the man she was going to marry.

My father invited my mother for Shabbat dinner with his family the following week, she couldn't believe what a warm family he had and what an abundance of moroccan food there was. She ate herself into a coma and decided she was quite happy there and didn't want to leave. She finally felt at home even though she couldn't understand what his family were saying. My parents were in love and it was time to build a life together, My mother had to wait 3 years before he finished the army to return to South Africa to take her future husband to meet her parents..

They came to South Africa and had a big wedding, she felt so delighted that she

managed to seal the deal. My father felt like a fish out of water initially, as he was thrown in to a culture that was very different from his own. They had planned to return to Israel to live 2 years later but my father grew close to my mother's father, who became like a second father who mentored him and groomed him into a successful businessman and auctioneer.

I was born in Cape Town on September 19th 1984. I was 2 months premature, which I'm pretty sure it contributed to my fighting spirit in life.

Being the firstborn, my parents were naturally obsessed with me, my mother treated me like I was her little doll. When she couldn't find cute enough clothing for her little princess to wear, she would buy actual dolls and dress me up in their cute outfits.

I was very fortunate to have such loving doting parents.

At age 2 my brother arrived in this world, I was so happy to have a new brother and friend to play with. Dancing and singing and putting on shows for my parents, was my favourite past time, I even dressed up my brother in one of my tutus for our grand ballet Show! My brother and I had a love hate relationship and there was bad sibling rivalry, in our early years we got along, but as we got older we wanted to kill each other at the best of times and my mother was exhausted from playing the mediator.

I went to Alon Ashel nursery school and the highlight of my week was being chosen to be the "Ima" (mother in Hebrew) at our Shabbat service where I would say the blessings over the candles to welcome in the Sabbath and we would eat Challah bread and drink grape juice (an age-appropriate substitute for wine).

I was a very sociable and creative child with an active imagination and a sense of wonder. I loved art and looked forward to extracurricular art classes once a week after school where I could develop my skills.

I grew up in a very lively home, there was always music playing. My father being Israeli, had an eclectic worldly taste in music. He would play his favourite 70's or Eurovision hits and The Gypsy Kings were his favourite. I would be transported to Italy with the hits from the San Remo Song Festival and to Paris by famous French singers like Joe Dassin.

Our house was very sociable, there would always be a lively bunch of friends over and our weekends were spent braaing (barbecuing) and splashing in the pool.

I was the apple of my father's eye and he would always throw me the best birthday parties, scrambling to get party decorations at the last minute but somehow managing to pull it off. Pass the Parcel, Pick O Box, the chocolate game and the dancing freeze game, were the standard birthday activities.

One party in particular that stood out for me, was my "Pop Star" birthday party, I think I was 6 or 7. Obviously, I was Janet Jackson in black high waisted pants and a beaded crop top, we sang karaoke and danced the evening away. All I wanted, was to be a pop star.

Since I could stand, I loved to dance and had a natural sense of rhythm. I got sent to ballet at age 6, and was told that It was the foundation and discipline for all genres of dance. I struggled with it and the classical music really didn't resonate with me. I also had a podgy big tummy not conducive to being a ballerina.

I started primary school and fell short as I struggled immensely with reading, I was lagging a lot behind my class and my confidence started to dwindle, I was also bullied by one girl in particular who made me feel rather small, but I kept my head up and carried on.

Modern dancing was my new found passion and I loved it, however it was very challenging for me to pick up the steps. I persevered and did many dance eisteddfods and won the best character dance prize in my red tulle skirt and black hat for my version of Eliza Dolittle's sing "Just You Wait Henry Higgins".

For my second dance that year, I completely blanked midway in my performance, I forgot the dance and ran off the stage to the song " A La La La Long, A La La Long Long Di Long Long Long" I will never forget it. I nearly gave up, instead I started tap lessons that year and excelled as I had a great sense of rhythm.

I had prayed so hard for a little sister and couldn't believe my prayers were answered when I was 9, but my parents were very anxious when Gabriella was born.

She was a miracle baby being 3 months premature and weighing 750 grams, just like a tub of margarine. She was so delicate and minute, her body was slightly bigger than the size of a standard ball-point pen. Gabriella got pneumonia and my parents were nervous wrecks praying for her survival. Even though I was just 9 years old I confidently reassured my mother not to worry, that I had been praying every night and I just knew Gabi was going to be ok. My intuition was right, she was the most beautiful child you have ever seen. I just loved having a baby sister.

By grade 3, all the friends I had were shining in ballet and I felt completely left out. I had no confidence and was left with only 1 friend. My self esteem plummeted even further as I couldn't do Maths. I would sit in class so lost, I would just sharpen my pencils the entire lesson. My teacher was rather concerned and sent me for an IQ test. Feeling very stupid up until that point, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had a very high IQ and that my grades should be in the high B's and that I might even get a few A's. This brought a huge sense of relief and I started applying myself more. It was safe to say that I did much better in the subjects that were more interesting to me and I quickly came to understand that my creative right brain was working overtime in order to compensate for the lack of activity in my left brain, the seat of numbers and logic.

Never the less, I was loved by my teachers and started to become popular again by the time I reached grade 6.

I was a very sensitive child and a bit of a cry baby, I remember going to a friends birthday party and calling my mother crying to come to fetch me because my friends were being horrible to me. She told me to go back in the room and pretend that everyone liked me and if I still felt sad I should call her after 10 minutes to come and collect me. I called her back five minutes later and told her I was fine and didn't want her to fetch me. Through that lesson, she taught me, that how we perceive our reality is everything, and a slight shift in perception can make the world of difference.

When I was 10 years old I auditioned and got into the musical Evita as one of the children, I was so excited, I remember that first feeling of being in the theatre, the vast backstage with all the hanging props and sets waiting in the wings, even the smell of the dusty red velvet curtains and of course the costumes, the charismatic actors and being centre stage in the spotlight. I knew at that point, I felt like I was home, this was where I was meant to be, this was my destiny.

In Grade 6, my last year of junior school, I landed my first part in our school play "The Jungle Book" as Baloo, the bear. The timing couldn't have been worse as my parents had booked us a

once in a lifetime dream holiday to Disney World.

It was a tough decision to make, to go on this dream holiday and miss out on my first debut role. Some of the other mothers told my mom,

"She better not miss this opportunity because once she gets to middle school, it will be so competitive that she might not get another chance."

Needless to say, off I went to Disney World. Luckily the opposite happened when I got to middle school.

One of my best friend's Oona, had very creative parents, her father was a film director and her mother was a Yogi before yoga was all the rage and mainstream. They lived in a very big house at the top of Fresnaye. There was a wind chime that tinkled outside the main entrance and it made me feel very calm when I visited. Oona's mother had a yoga studio in the house where she would teach. On one of my visits we met one of her guests, a guru from the USA, a few of us friends sat in the yoga studio on the floor as he played us his favourite uplifting Kundalini songs. We asked him so many questions of a spiritual nature, questions we desperately wanted answers to. I think that was the start of my spiritual journey, I began to think out the box and question things, I also started finding all these random new age books around my house on subjects like astro travelling, the afterlife and new age religions. When I asked my mother where these books came from, she had no idea. I guess I, the student was ready and the master appeared. Subconsciously I knew this would take me to another place and decided to put down the books till a later stage.

I have to hand it to my mom, she was and still is the most unconventional, brilliant mother, I would not be who I am today without her. She helped me believe in myself, supported me and always said, "nothing ventured, nothing gained". At around age 11/12, a new underage club opened up in Claremont called "Taboo", all the mothers were in a state about us kids going there, so naturally my mother went to check it out. There was no alcohol, no drugs and she told the other mothers,

"Let them go, while they are young and want to dance, let them dance."

That was my mother for you, always thinking out the box. Thanks to her we had the most wonderful nights at Taboo, socialising and dancing our hearts out.

I went into early puberty in grade 6 and started breaking out in really bad acne, it followed me to middle school and I was put on Roaccutane, I had to wear heavy makeup to cover it, which made me feel rather insecure. On the upside, my reading improved and I ended up receiving the best reading prize at the end of Middle school.

The Bar/Batmitzvah season was the highlight of grade 7, having a party to look forward to with all my friends every single weekend.

I also had a wonderful dinner dance Batmitzvah, with a theatrical theme.

I joined the school choir and that really started to boost my confidence.

I was adored by my choirmaster, Ivor Joffee, who believed in me and allowed me to shine, giving me most of the wonderful solo parts.

I was also training privately with a classical singing teacher to strengthen my voice and widen my range, I was being trained as a Soprano and learning German arias which weren't my favourite, I preferred Italian. Anyways I was broadening my knowledge of music and listening to the likes of Maria Callas, extremely different to my pop Idol J.Lo but I was determined to have a strong voice and just like ballet, classical vocal training is the foundation for any great singer.

We were going on our first choir tour to Port Elizabeth and the night before we left, I had a dream that the other girls were all singing my parts, It was awful.

The next day when we arrived in PE, I was called to the teachers who were leading the field trip.

They sat me down and said: "Dani, unfortunately, there have been some complaints from the other girls' mothers, that you are being given preferential treatment and are singing most of the solos, so we have to be fair and give some of your solo parts to the other girls.

I was gutted, my dream had come true, I couldn't believe it.

It was so unfair! How could they do this?

My mother was really upset so she went to the principal and asked him,

"Do you send your mediocre students to the Maths Olympiad? What about the Waterpolo team? Then why when it comes to the performing arts are you not allowing the most gifted to shine?"

He agreed one hundred percent, but the damage was done.

That was my first introduction into the politics I would face in this industry.

Every year my family went on holiday to the Beacon Isle Hotel in Plettenberg Bay.

The talent show was by far the highlight for me and my father. He told me, "Tonight, you are going to sing " Time To Say Goodbye". I knew it, but was really scared that I wouldn't be able to pull it off. What if I didn't hit the high note at the end? I would be mortified! I was so angry at my father for pushing me to do it that I locked myself in the bathroom and wouldn't come out. He had decided I was doing it and was so excited about it, that I just had to suck it up and do it for him. He really had more faith in me than I had in myself. I was so relieved when I heard the huge applause and that people loved it. I felt a sense of pride that I pulled it off and realised how much of an obstacle fear was, I had to overcome it.

Middle school gave me my second introduction to drama by being part of the school plays and the process of creating a musical. I loved rehearsals and being part of a cast, I was lucky enough to get the main solo part, performing the dance number from Evita "Buenas Aires" in one school production, I never imagined I would be playing the lead in the international tour one day.

At 14 I went with my family on a trip to The Big Apple. I had dreamed of New York as I used to watch the Musical/Movie Fame, I was beyond thrilled to be there right in the middle of Times Square, with it's yellow cabs racing by, the fast paced energy and air of excitement, the land of opportunity.

I went to my first Broadway musical Foot Loose, I was so inspired that I walked out of that show and told my parents,

"This is what I want to do with my life"

I was asked to perform for an incredible charity event happening at the Nico Malan Theatre (now Artscape theatre) "A Night of a Hundred Stars" , I would be singing with 2 other girls and the guest of honour was the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson. We sang Thank You For the Music by Abba, Fame and Body Electric from Fame.

It made me even more certain, that the stage was where I belonged.

Shortly after that, my family went on a fun outing to Ratanga Junction Theme Park where I heard the most stunning Latin music playing. As the sun began to set, I followed the beautiful sound of the Flamenco guitar.

I found "The Gypsy Kings" well, Cape Town's version of them, in a quaint restaurant. They had a female singer already but I was determined to be in this band. I approached one of the guitarists in their break and asked if they needed anymore singers. He told me that the position was already filled, I mean clearly it was, there she was.

Determined, I told him to take my number and should she fall ill or not be able to make a gig, I could fill in.

I waited for months and didn't hear anything, and out of the blue I got a call from Faiz, the Flamenco guitarist from the band, he asked me if I would be interested in learning the music as one of the singers had fallen pregnant and would need to be replaced soon.

I was so excited, this was my shot at being part of a real band, my first real job! It beat my summer job, selling sandwiches on the beach.

I agreed to meet him at his home the following week to start working on the repertoire.

Now I should mention that Faiz was a heavyset man, old enough to be my grandfather, and I was a 15-year-old girl going to his house unsupervised. Not only that, here I was, a naive Jewish girl from Sea Point rocking up in Bo Kaap slap bang in the Cape Malay Muslim quarter. I remember walking up the steep cobblestone hill into a brightly coloured bottle green house. I heard the (Moazin) call to prayer from a nearby mosque, I stood at the doorway thinking that perhaps I had the wrong house number as it was very dilapidated. The floorboards creaked as I walked in, the paint on the interior walls was peeling off and there was an overpowering smell of curry cooking in the kitchen. I definitely wasn't in Sea Point anymore.

Faiz was a very introverted man, let's just say he didn't have the best social skills.

He walked me up the creaking stairs towards a bedroom and I'm not going to lie, I felt very scared. You must be thinking, and your parents just dropped you off there?

It was a bit weird sitting with him on a bed in this room at first, but then I relaxed and realised that he was harmless.

There was no Itunes in those days, so no downloading backing tracks, we worked with midi files and he played the guitar over. (God I sound ancient!)

I started learning all of Gloria Estefan's songs, Bossa Novas in Portuguese and mainly a lot of Latin Pop, it was the time of Ricky Martin and J.LO.

I would have to do my homework and learn the songs by our next meeting. I would write out the Spanish lyrics and then rewrite them phonetically, I would listen to them over and over again until they were memorised. Half the time I didn't even know what the words meant, isn't it amazing how one's brain can do that?

I worked really hard on the repertoire and it was finally time for my first real live paying gig.

I was 15 years old and the gig was at a Latin restaurant in Plumstead called Mambos. I was petrified, I just wanted to seem professional and be taken seriously.

The second gig at Mambos went better, I gained more confidence and started really performing.

I absolutely loved being a part of this band and was fond of the other musicians, I respected them and they respected me as an artist.

Suddenly I was put in a hard place, because now being a part of the band meant gigs on the weekends and putting them first. I had to either choose to go on organised school weekends away with my friends or gig with the band.

It was tough, but I chose the band.

I was finally in high school and so excited to audition for West Side Story, all I wanted was to play Maria, I looked the part, I could sing the notes, I mean after singing in Spanish in my band, I practically was Latina! I was perfect for it!

One of the teachers in charge of the production singled me out in the audition group call and asked me to Sing "Somewhere" (the showstopper from the show) for everyone. She told the others "Now this is how you sing that song!". I was flattered and felt I had a good chance at landing the lead role. The next day the cast was announced and the daughter of the other teacher who was putting on the play, got the role, she was blonde and no Maria, I was absolutely devastated, I went home and cried the whole afternoon. I told myself this would be the first of many rejections and that it was toughening me up and teaching me resilience for life in the real world after school.

My father and I would spend many nights getting lost in music together, to the point of irritating the rest of the family. He was very involved in my career and decided he would help make my dream of becoming a pop star a reality. He found me a songwriter and a producer and I recorded my first song " How could you do this to me". I loved being in the studio and felt quite at home there. My single had a definite Brittany Spears vibe to it and my producer managed to get it on a few radio stations. I was ecstatic when I heard it on the radio for the first time.

I had a photoshoot for a write up in the Argus newspaper about me and I couldn't believe my dream was coming true. I remember driving down Strand Street with my mom and seeing bulletin boards that read " City Girl On The Road To Pop Stardom", I thought to myself, "Wow, she's lucky!" not realising it was me they were talking about. The article was supposed to be in the Arts section but ended up being printed on the front page of the newspaper.