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Traditional Dance… Going, Going, Gone!

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
16 January 2016   |   11:20 pm
... A Traditional Pastime Going Extinct<em AN incessant din resounded, as sun set on Asaba arcade ground, which hosted the grand finale of Anioma Cultural Festival. As early as 8am, dance groups had arrived the venue for a symphony of Anioma cultures — dance, music, fashion and the creative arts — that have grown into…

… A Traditional Pastime Going Extinct<em

Contemporary dancers at the last Jomba Dance Festival in South Africa

Contemporary dancers at the last Jomba Dance Festival in South Africa

AN incessant din resounded, as sun set on Asaba arcade ground, which hosted the grand finale of Anioma Cultural Festival. As early as 8am, dance groups had arrived the venue for a symphony of Anioma cultures — dance, music, fashion and the creative arts — that have grown into a melting pot of sort in a modern space. And by 8.30am, more than 80 per cent of the over 150 dance groups billed to perform had stormed the venue.

On display were various dance steps such as, Egwu Oshushu, Agwuba (royal dance), Egwu Ajah (maiden dance), Uloko, Olingba and Amala. Indeed, anyone at the venue would easily feel the vibes and excitement of the day, as competing groups danced to the delight of all. The overall best performance at the festival went to Onu Anioma of Owa Alero. The group got a cash prize of N300,000 from the sponsors, followed by Delta State Polytechnic Dance Group, Ogwashi-Uku, which got a cash prize of N200,000, while the third position went to Anionye Dance Group from Otolokpo. The group won N100,000.

It is a small amount compared to the money that was won by 24-year old Kelvin Ayanruoh from Delta State at the end of Dance with Peter, a dance reality show anchored by Peter Okoye of P-Square fame and sponsored by the mobile telecommunication’s company, Globacom.

Also, on offer were mouth-watering prizes, including a brand new Toyota RAV 4 with N3m for the winner and an opportunity to feature in P-Square’s next music video. The first and second runners-up, on the other hand, will go home with a brand new Honda Civic car with N2m and a brand new Kia Rio car with N1m respectively. Both of them will also have the chance to feature in a top Glo Ambassador’s music videos.

Though, Peter Elosia blazed a trail in terms of dance promotion, with the once famous Elo Pee John Player Goldleaf Championship, different organisations have supported and are supporting dance contests like, Malta Guinness Street Dance (Guinness), Battle of the Year Nigeria (MTN), Maltina Dance All (NBPlc) and Celebrity Takes Two (Skye Bank).

Many companies, including the leading telecommunication outfits and banks, are using it to promote their brands.

The issue, however, is far bigger than the brand being created. Compared with its more illustrious ‘younger cousin’, contemporary dance, traditional dance in Nigeria is no longer as important as it once was.. A gradual decline since the era of colonisation and less encouraging state policy towards the creative arts have reduced the genre to ‘tokenism’.

To dance experts, modern economics has redefined its practice in the country such that the traditional genre is no longer highly rated, except in the rural areas and the art councils of different states. They say the best places to see traditional dance practice now are the villages.

This erosion of traditional dance values makes the National Choreographer and Deputy Director of National Troupe of Nigeria, Arnold Udoka, sad.

To him, “you have to sit back and ask how long has this been going on? How long has this genre been displaced by economic dictates?”

Udoka, who has created over 70 works, some of which include, Ndem Mmong; The Defilement; New Generation; Ariagha-Umo-Nkoriko; We, The Dead; Song of the Sea, Abaikpa Ideghe Akang Iba, Fire of Peace; New Frontiers; Flames of the Niger; The Water Basket; One Earth, One People; Rites (Rights) of Passage. Damsel; Dawn; noted that dance forms in the country have changed, which makes it difficult to know how they were performed at that time.

“How many generations have been denied opportunity of knowing the rules, the forms and the styles?” he asked. “What we are just experiencing are residuals of what the dances were. You will eventually come to understand that the erosion is a function of social change.”

Udoka, one of the most decorated choreographers and dancers from the continent, also pointed at the non availability of opportunities available for social mobility as responsible for the decline. “Does the curriculum give space for the practice of traditional dance? Which of the states’ art councils has a collection of traditional dances written and archived for posterity like history and archaeology have done so that people can fall back on them as symbols of ethnic identification? Where are the people who will perform it?” he asked.

To the University of Calabar-trained choreographer, the people, who are supposed to be doing the traditional dance, are in the city doing menial businesses: riding bike (Okada) and tricycle (Marwa or Keke NAPEP).”

Government’s effort to promote traditional dance led to the formation of National Troupe of Nigeria, but this has not made matter better, as there is no way all the lingual groups or dance forms can be presented.

Beyond the economic challenge, dance critics and culture workers also say the coming of contemporary dance in the country is responsible for the decline of traditional dance in the repertoire. The emergence is traced to the support provided by institutions such as, Alliance Francaise, French Cultural Centre, French Embassy and Goethe Institut of Germany.

Notable is the workshop organised by the French Cultural Centre in Lagos, where Claude Brumachon and Benjamin Larmache were invited to impart on Nigerian choreographers and dancers, Europeans dance concept, in 1994.

The workshop had over three hundred dancers in attendance, but only seven were selected to participate in the artist-in-residence programme at the Centre Choreographique National de Nantes in France in 1995.

The seven successful dancers were Abel Utuedor, Faith Benson, Abubakar Usman, Esther Olaniyan (now Esther Bubakar Usman), Adebayo Liadi, Bayo Ogunrinade and Christopher Abdul Onibasa (now Christopher Emmanuel Onibasa).

These dancers went on tour of West Africa and France in 1996 with a dance piece choreographed by Brumachon titled, When the gods go crying.

During the years between the first contemporary dance workshop and the birth of the first festival in the country —The Danse Meets Dance (DMD) Festival —the genre has grown much bigger and more complicated than the origin would have suggested.

DMD, which started in 2001, was first organised and run by the French Cultural Centre Lagos, until 2004, when the centre closed. The festival aimed to encourage professional dance in the country and give Nigerian dancers exposure on the international scene. The festival featured performances from local and foreign dance companies, and also, workshops for professional and amateur dancers.

Since the death of DMD, there have been other festivals designed to promote the genre. Prominent among them is the Trufesta organised by the Ijo Dee Dance Centre.

The centre, under the leadership of Joel Bertrand, equally organised a competition through its yearly Dance meets Danse Festival that featured local troupes at its Kingsway Road, Ikoyi, premises, in August 2003, which Ijodee, led by Adedayo Muslim Liadi, came top. The prize was the representation of Nigeria at the fifth African and Indian Ocean Choreographic Platform.

Prior the contemporary dance workshop in Nigeria, Alphonse Tierou, a researcher and theoretician in Cote d’Ivoire dance, was the first to headline the campaign to free African dancers from the traditional dance yoke. He was convinced that “if dance in Africa moves forward, Africa will move too.”

He managed to convince others including Nigerian choreographers, in 1992, to form the association Afriquen Creations. The association launched a programme called, Pour une danse africaine conterporaine, and in 1995, the association inaugurated the first African choreography platform in Sanga.

The issues at stake for the founding fathers included, how the dance arts could receive wide political support; how better to unite Africa, with its many different cultures and identities, through dance, which is part of life and celebrations everywhere in Africa.

At the same time, France started to play host to top choreographers such as, Irene Tassembedo, Germaine Acogny and Koffi Koko, providing them with an ideal environment in which to work out and develop a new traditional African and modern dance movement. Also remarkable is the major role-played by Mathilde Monnier, a lover of African choreography, who revealed many new talents beginning with Seydou Boro and Silia Sanou — winner of Sanga in 1997 and artistic director of the event in 2001 and 2003.

Liadi, a graduate of Senegal International Centre for Dance and Choreography, however, does not believe that traditional dances are fading away, “because in the art councils, they are the dance that dominate.”

He noted that traditional dances are in major demand, but some artistes, who do not know what they are doing want to be classified as practitioners of the contemporary genre. “They are shying away from their cultural heritage to emulate Western culture. I’m doing Nigerian dances as well as, but my contemporary dance has Nigerian flavour,” he said.

Liadi continued, “I use traditional dance and music as source of imagination or as a glossary of composition. The choreography leaves its root and returns to them just as it feeds on a variety of influences and styles without ever letting itself be misled. It draws from these languages to create something decidedly unique.”

According to Liadi, “I refuse to leave my root or get out of where I come from. Don’t ever leave your root. Always tap from it and build on it, because it’s yours. All my movements are from Africa… from Swange (Benue), Bata (Yoruba), Koroso (Hausa), Atilogwu (Ibo), Ekombi (Cross Rivers) and even from Senegal, Benin Republic, Mali… all of them… I refuse to get out of my Africanity.”

The choreographer also believes that there is no strong drive by the art councils to tackle the issue through rigorous research and documentation of traditional dance. He said, “the cultural centres have a duty to research, promote and propagate indigenous art forms.”

For Qudus Onikeku, a dance practitioner, “economically, are we able to meet up with our ends, while performing our traditional dances that have presently been degraded to a tool to welcome VIPs at the airport and terminals, entertainers at wedding ceremonies and an element to fill the gap during item menu? Are we able to command respect by trying to keep tradition alive?”

Onikeku said, “I create a movement identity that fuses dance and acrobatics, while I make my Yoruba culture my basis, and combining it with several other influences such as hip hop, capoeira, and contemporary dance vocabularies, to weave a certain understanding of the human nature and condition.”

Onikeku, whose work is influenced by Nigerian dance, hip-hop, acrobatics and more, explores themes of identity and exile in his dance movement. The artiste, who was Granada’s Artist-in-Residence in Winter 2013, directed Do We Need Coca-Cola to Dance? in 2007, as an urban dance project in various African cities, which gave rise to a documentary film. Other works include, I Must Set Forth (2009) at the Bates Dance Festival, My Exile is in my Head (2010) at Centquatre in Paris and STILL/Life (2011) at the Festival d’Avignon.

However, while dance artistes have dithered and pandered to contemporary dance, a few have tried to maintain the traditional through modern steps. Crown Troupe of Africa is one. The Crown Troupe of Africa is a dance-theatre company comprising artists whose forte is the creation of new, but socially relevant works. The troupe explores dance, drama, music, poetry as well as visual arts in their creations with the aim of achieving a proper balance between the functional and aesthetic values of African total theatre.

Though, the dance practitioner and president of the Guild of Nigerian Dancers, Steve James, is not comfortable that traditional dances are fading away, he is, however, happy that other genres of dance are being embraced. “Dance is all encompassing — modern, traditional and contemporary.”

James says Globalisation is not a small issue in the modern dance lexicon. However, is afraid that the cultural uniqueness is being lost in favour of homogenisation and a “universal culture” that draws heavily from American and European culture.

While not blaming the practitioners, James acknowledged the significant role globalisation is playing in the synthesisation of new dance movement in the country. He said, “globalisation has taken over everything such that people’s culture are invaded and there’s nothing like our own again. People who pay the money or commission you to do any dance project determine what they want.”

Many customs and cultures have disappeared such as, tradition of dressing and some language and expressions have changed. But these efforts to globalise is useless, if the country fails to act, And maybe, in the next 50 years, there may not be anything like any of this dance again.