Sunday, December 26, 2010

West African Dance: Recreating a Fading Tradition

Nigeria: Background
Africa is the second largest continent in the world. It consists of Northern, Western, Middle, Eastern, and Southern regions. There are approximately fifty-two countries and within those countries are states. Within the states are cities and within them are a wide expanse of tribes and communities. For the most part, Africa is streaming with vibrant culture; so much that one may not even know where to begin. So Africa, in its entirety, is a very complex place. Our focus here is Nigeria, West Africa and specifically, dance.

Inhabitants of the Western world would not actually give a second (or even first) thought as to what West African dance truly is or what its meanings and origins are. There are people that are students learning how to dance African dance for fitness reasons. Some may even believe that it is not even dancing and that people who engage in it are merely jumping wildly without technique or rhythm. However, what they do not realize is that West African dance is not only a dance it is a tradition and an experience!

The core of Nigerian culture is dance. It is the epicenter of social inclusion, unity, and participation in their society. Dancing in Africa is more than entertainment it is a way of life. There are numerous types of dances with various meanings. Each one is unique and are representations or expressions of their beliefs, feelings, or circumstances. In Africa, each dance is very purposeful. Each one is done in groups (only men, only women, only young,only old or anyone). Some dances are religious and are done to praise the gods and others are war dances. Dances are done at ceremonies and funerals as well. In African dance, dancers communicate with one another and an audience with their facial expressions and with their body movement. Even without the use of words, the sheer fact is that they can express their emotion and feeling so well with movement. Dancers highly value aesthetics in their dancing so they tend to be graceful and intense.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago- Lou Conte Dance Studio
The day is November, 27, 2010 as I make my way to the Hubbard Street Dance Studio here in Chicago. What caught my attention from the beginning were the students jogging or speed-walking before it actually opened! It is easy to see how determined and committed the dancers are. What awaits me next, I did not expect.

I enter the studio and tell the receptionist why I was there. Without suspicion, I was allowed to make observations on a dance class. My access was limited, however, as I was only allowed to take my notes and watch from the window. The Hubbard Street Dance Studio offers a variety of classes of different levels and styles and payment is required in order to be taught. So, as I am trying to decide which class I was to observe I was becoming a bit confused as to what dances were actually taking place. I finally decided to go back to the first studio (“Studio C“).

It was a bit difficult to hear what instructions were being given. It felt like watching the
television with no sound! From the schedule on the wall to my left, I learned that it was an African dance class that ran from 10 A.M to 11:30 A.M. At some point, an assistant who was taking a break stepped out and asked if I wanted to join. From the short conversation I had with the woman, I learned that the dancers began by doing warm-ups for an hour!

Day one: Observations
There were three women in the class (African American and two Caucasian), two guests, one assistant, and one instructor. The dancers, the assistant, and the instructor were all barefoot, in loose fitting or comfortable clothing of any color. The dancers are of no particular size so the class is very open to persons of ALL types.

For the warm-ups, upbeat music was being played to energize the mood in the room. Their work outs consist of stretches, foot work, and some yoga moves. Everyone keeps up with the instructor and they use the big mirror as a guide, as well as each other. The warm-ups are important for blood flow and the muscles. Although the warm-up move needn’t be perfect, they should be nearly accurate. To ensure this, the instructor, Mr. Olumuyiwa Ojo would pause and help who ever needed assistance. He also does counts, which are very important for pacing. By now, everyone has worked up a considerable amount of sweat!

The Dance
A series of moves are being done in the dance. They sway their arms and make circular motions with them. They also do kicks, bending, stretching, and light stomp- like foot work. One of the most vital parts of the dances and pacing are the instruments. In this class, a talking drum, and cowbells are used for pacing the moves. Mixtures of beats were played that corresponded to certain steps. As with anyone who wishes to improve, there is a lot of repetition! Over the course of my observations that day, there were occasions where people would stop to see what was happening. Surely, to one who had absolutely no knowledge about this type of dance may think that all the dancers are doing is jumping up and down. I however had not yet found out the complexity.

Day Two: Observation and Insight
It has already been a week since I last went to the studio (given that this class only meets on Saturdays). I arrive and I assume my usual post, behind the window. To my surprise, the instructor notices me and invites me into the studio! He introduces me as a student conducting a project. One of the dancers asks me what my project is about and I gladly told her. In my mind, I was thrilled to actually be inside and being welcomed into the class; given that I did have a legitimate reason to be there.

The atmosphere inside the studio felt a lot more alive and vibrant. I was able to hear Ojo speak to his students and the music. I saw two new dancers (a Caucasian man and a Hispanic lady) as well as the same woman from the previous week (Caucasian). As Ojo begins the music, he explains that the next set of warm ups are meant to get the heart pumping faster. The dancers do stepping movements and they extend bent arms forward and sway them back. This is all done while moving towards the mirror, once they reach it they run lightly backwards. The moves are all done in time to Ojo’s counts. This warm- up was done for about 5-8 minutes or so. After this, the dancers did their stretches. They did downward dogs and rose up slowly and gracefully. In another stretch, they extended their left leg back and the right leg forward while their right arm is extended forward and the left one back (vice versa). Next, the dancers stood upright on their tip-toes with their arms pointing high into the air. Ojo told his students that they are like spirits.

Dancing is intricate
This dance is a recreation athletic dance. This dance originates in Nigeria, West Africa. It is done mostly by adolescent boys. The first move is called the alternate step (diagrams are included). The dancers first must face forward then use the right side of their body (arm and leg) to sway them towards the wall to their left and vice versa. This is done four times for each side. The assistant in the room plays the talking drum because the beats are the key to the steps being done and it lets the dancers know when to change their move. Ojo shows his students how to execute the step and steps back to play the talking drum while his assistant plays the cowbell. In the next step, the dancers face forward again, but this time their knees are bent (squatting position). They walk forward on bent knees while swinging their arms on each side (knee in the middle with arms on either side of it) and this is done two times for each side. The moves were very difficult to track because they were detailed and of course, intricate! To end the move they kick their left leg in the air and must land on the left foot. For the next step, the right arm is extended back, the left is extended forward the legs are stretched opposite of the arms. This is all done while facing the right wall and then left like the alternate step. The trickiest parts to track were the foot movements and each stepping move. This is because there is a specific way to step and what foot to land on.

The interview
Being a dancer, to Ojo, means having a passion for music and the art of movement. He said that in dance, the dancer’s instrument is their body. Although his answer was not intellectual, it did not need to be. His outlook on what dance is, is being able to feel the energy and to be free the same as traditional attitudes are. In his classes, he never tells his students that they need to be perfect (since it is not professional dance) so long as they can let the energy captivate them and express themselves.

Ojo is from Nigeria, West Africa and is familiar with dance in that region. When he lived in Nigeria, he noticed that the youth there wanted to be American and were very influenced by pop culture and icons such as Michael Jackson. The main reason youth in Nigeria long to be American is because the American media is so abundant and many of them do not think that African dancing is very interesting or important. He believed that tradition was fading so he decided to start teaching West African dance to bring it back to life and to raise awareness about the tradition. Since this form of dance is much underrepresented in America, it is seen as different or unusual.
Although Ojo wants to preserve traditional West African dance, he also has to put aside some of his opinions and beliefs within the class because the students pay to learn how to dance, not to learn what the meaning behind it is. He told me that, for the most part, students he has had were in the class to keep in shape and to be active. He did mention that sometimes students did ask why they were dancing a specific dance or for the meaning of it.
What was striking is that as I watched the dancers, the young Hispanic lady would stop when she would get lost and be able to keep up with the moves. She can pick up the movements despite the steps being elaborate. Since dancers cannot always talk verbally, naturally, the people around them are communicating through their movements. The dancers are also well aware of the correlation between changes in drum beats and dance steps. Drum rhythms, again, are vital elements of movement because they indicate change in steps in traditional dances. In traditional dance, being able to do this shows acuity! While Ojo cannot force his ideas or cultural meanings to his students directly, he can still instill these elements into the class without vocalizing it! These students are unknowingly engaging in a culture they know nothing of by using these techniques. The remarkableness of them choosing this class is, that without them even asking questions or performing in a traditional way, they are still in the midst of something so different. They in a sense are recreating this culture; a rebirth of a fading tradition!


Nigeria - Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette
Retrieved from:

Dance and Music
Retrieved from:

Idamoyibo, Atinuke A.,2003,“Dynamics of African Dance” in Humanities Review Journal Vol. 3.1, 67-73

Olumuyiwa Ojo- West African Dance Teacher at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

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