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The meaning of a new crazy African dance

Friday February 12 2010

South African President Jacob Zuma does it the Zulu style. Photo/FILE

South African President Jacob Zuma does it the Zulu style. Photo/FILE 

By The meaning of a new crazy African dance

It is still a dance step without a clear form; something that mustn’t be understood even by those for whom it is staged.

Suddenly, the auditorium is thrown into darkness, and an eerie silence that attracts all the attention. Then some dim light filters onto the stage and shadows of ghostly human figures appear.

Standing lifelessly, the figures conjure up the image of a lonely African sculpture somewhere in a London art gallery.

Then there is a gradual break into some animated movements without any coordination; no regard for the traditional sense of rhythm. To express their feelings, the dancers wriggle and wiggle and writhe in what looks like pain, or is it ecstasy.

Nerve-wrecking screams

This is the strange wave of contemporary dance that has been blowing across Africa, in what dancers like Opiyo Okach, Senegalese Germaine Acogny, Ivorian Alphonse Tierou and Beninois Koffi Koko describe as “shifting the centre of African dance”.

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Opiyo is an award winning dancer at large, with Kenyan roots.

In between the performance, there are nerve-wrecking screams, sort of ballet movements even some familiar steps that don’t seem to blend into the rest of the rolling, twisting and winnowing movements.

Because this is a new item on the African dance menu, they call it “contemporary African dance”. Some critics are not comfortable with the label because, they argue, it could blur the fact that traditional African dance is still evolving; introducing new ingredients and producing what is contemporary African dance.

Foreign flavour

To circumvent these confusions and politics of naming, I call it “post contemporary African dance madness”. But get it right. Though creeping into some of the corners of Africa today, it has been around the continent for more than two decades, more than four in the case of western Africa, where the French eccentrics facilitated an early interaction between West Africa and other fanciful European dance moves.

In the beginning was the typical dance step-what you see is what you get sort of spontaneously choreographed in Africa for carefree groups. Then some privileged groups of dancers who visited Europe were mesmerised by its flamboyance, and with a bit of financial back-up from the European and American wallets, a new dance step came to Africa. It is still trying to persuade dance fans that it is something worth their time as it finetunes its movements.

Whether the moves, the shapes or even the magical stage lighting, everything about this new dance step is funny - not necessarily in the hah hah sense.

When the act opens, you get attentive hoping to follow the theatrics. In the middle of things, you get lost in the labyrinth of actions, things get a bit blur. This is in the cases where the dances are a patchwork- a bit of tango here, Salsa there, even ballet and lots of unrhymed African dance whose metaphors the audiences are not able to interpret.

Question is, what do we make of this dance. Why is it spreading in Africa today, and not 10 years ago?

There is something “unAfrican” about it. Passionate and at the same time looking somewhat crazy and weird, the dancers do seem to be deliberately attempting to put any meaning to their steps. The audiences, lost in the rhythms, are left interpreting if they must.

It was quite unusual in the past to dance alone. The whole village danced together. There was a structure; a clear storyline in the lyrics and the opening and closing were always definite.

Africa is changing, and globalising. And an in an increasingly individualistic society that many places in Africa are becoming, dance has become a very personal narrative, expressed through personal metaphors and moves with the dancers caring less about the audiences.

The old values, it seems, will linger for a while. When Opiyo Okach recently travelled with his act around seven cities in five countries (Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Guinea) – over one month and ten days -- there were mixed responses.

Whether in Nairobi, Lagos, Johannesburg, even in Lome, contemporary dance is still an elitist art. Only a few expatriates, and local intellectual intellectuals can understand the strange dance steps and artists gather to watch this form. So when Europe-based African dancer/choreographers like Senegalese Germaine Acogny, Ivorian Alphonse Tierou and Beninois Koffi Koko come home with the contemporary dance, despite the promotions through cultural exchanges, workshops, and tours mostly organised by foreign cultural agents, they are still struggling to have foothold in Africa.

Push the limits

Supporters say this new wave is the contemporary dancers’ contribution of new memory as they borrow from traditional dance but push the limits a little further, something that has been described by some critics as a cultural subjugation. “This movement is born out of traditional dance but moves onto somewhere else. I try to find a whole truth for myself,” said Opiyo Okach who has been one of the missionaries of contemporary dance to sometimes reluctant fans.

Mwenda wa Micheni is an assistant editor with the Nation Media Group’s Africa Division.
Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project