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Dancing through the difficulties

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Nigerian women dancing at a political rally.

Nigerian women dancing at a political rally.

It’s 11pm on a Friday night and I’m sitting in a club in Abuja listening to the music vibrating off the walls. Still fairly early, the crowd is thin and the bodies are not yet grinding against one another involuntarily. In just over an hour this will all change as gaggles of women stroll in, many wearing their outfits like second skins, and posses of men armed with various intentions fall in behind. Soon the room will throb and pulsate as people “shakiti bobo” off the lingering stresses of the week, and “skelewu” away their varied disappointments.

Dancing bodies will bump into one another and drinks will topple out of glasses onto arms and dresses and legs. None of which will matter as long as the DJ keeps spinning correct. He switches from Drake’s ‘One Dance’ to Mr. Eazi’s ‘Skin Tight’, and the room explodes. It’s all I can do to stay seated. In fact I can’t. I get up and move to the beat, twisting my hips and swaying my hands. I dance like I’m the only one in the room, eyes closed, forgetting about the horrid stink of smoke that will cling to my hair and my skin till the morning. Indifferent. It’s worth it. I respect the power of music to wash away a day’s ills. And in the last several days, weeks and months of watching our country struggle on various fronts, I applaud the spirit that’s willing to dance even if nobody in real life is able to do as Wizkid croons and show them the money.

I was raised in a house filled with music. My father, a handsome bespectacled, serious looking bookworm of a barrister was also a music fanatic. His record collection began with the Ragtime and Jazz of the 1920’s and 30’s, continued onto the Big Band era of the 40’s and 50’s and extended to the likes of Bob Marley and Earth Wind and Fire in the late 70’s and 80’s.

I was raised to the deep scratchy voice of Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong and his thundering trumpet, the rich almost crystal clear vocals of Bing Cosby, the haunting hypnotism of Billie Holiday, the scatting sass of Ella Fitzgerald, and the dapper cocktail lounge swoon of Dean Martin. By sheer passion and vinyl volume my father encouraged his children to appreciate not only a wide range of musicians and talent, but to also appreciate and recognize the various ways music could hypnotize us into distinct moods and could cultivate specific feelings in us. Whether he knew it or not, there was scientific reasoning behind what he was teaching us.

Studies have shown that music can significantly alter our moods, raising not only our levels of excitement and joy but simultaneously reducing the stressful effects of negative life circumstances. When humans listen to, create or make music, they are somehow less prone to the onslaughts of depression, fatigue and anger. Discovering the extent of music’s impact on the brain was only made possible in the late 20th century with functional brain imaging. Up to ten different areas of our brains are affected when we listen to or even dance to music.

Parts of the brain then also stimulate and signal other parts of the body to active other positive internal bodily functions that can help reduce our levels of stress, which in turn reduces the potential for depression. Engaging music in different capacities can stimulate our body to reduce the level of the cortisol hormone in our systems, thereby helping to regulate our stress levels. Listening to music we enjoy can increase the levels of serotonin, the chemical neurotransmitter, in our bodies that affects, amongst many things, our mood balance. Engaging pleasurable music also seems to increase the amount of dopamine released into our bodies. Dopamine is associated with our emotional highs and lows, and our feelings of pleasure and reward. A lot of people rely on addictive substances or behaviors to maintain high dopamine levels. Music is a natural stimulant that can increase our dopamine levels.

Recently I found myself in conversation with an acquaintance about the state of the country, the economic challenges and the possible future prospects here versus other locations. I happened to mention my weekend plans, which involved heading out dancing at some point. My acquaintance smiled curiously and said, “You mean people still have money to spend in the night clubs these days?” Funny enough it sounded like less of a question and more of an indictment. I smiled back and offered, “Dancing is free.”

What I should have reminded her was that one of the many beautiful things about the resilient Nigerian spirit is that no matter how bad things get, and they do get bad, we never cease to find the time and the means to have fun and celebrate life. Sometimes it is what sustains during the tremendous difficulties. There’s a reason so many of us playfully hold the unofficial title of “Minister of Enjoyment.” Today I celebrate our love of rhythms and dancing. May even more of us grow to recognize the power of music and its healing, life- giving, and perspective-shifting properties. Make you get alert…Godwin.


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DancingEnuma Okoro
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1 Comment
  • Ireti Dada

    How truly apt. I love the article.