7 April 2014
The Historical and Modern Function of Nigerian Dance
“I found myself doing the dance without really thinking about it. My body just sort of took over and followed the rhythmic motto… it was as if I was watching someone else dance”
- ‘Alik Shahadah
Dance has always been an important form of expression in my life. I have been am able to learn and perform many different types of dances: ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, modern and African. Out of all of the classes I have taken, African is the one that I struggle with the most. I have given up taking classes and learning the heritage, often giving up because it is too complicated and my knees and back hurt from dancing so low to the ground. However, fall of 2013, in a talent show, I was introduced to another type of African dance, Nigerian dance. I immediately fell in love with the drum rhythms and the colorful costumes. Since then, I have worked closely with Amarachi Okafor, and have learned more about Nigerian dance. Okafor is a Nigerian dancer that has been dancing this style all of her life; her parents are both from Nigeria and were the ones who introduced her to Nigerian dance. Even though Nigerian dance is not much different than African dance, the slight differences cause me to enjoy it more. I now have a new appreciation for African dance moves. There is a reason why they bend over so low to the ground; each dance move has a historical reference. With this new spark of interest, I wanted to learn more about the history and more about the dance itself. It is more than just a series of dance steps. There are so many different components to a Nigerian dance, but I have chosen to focus on the historical and modern functions of it. The function of Nigerian dance has changed over time, Nigerian dance has remained the primary form of communication, both culturqal and religious, between different villages and languages.
Nigerian dance is an essential part of the culture; it is a part of their foundation. Nigerian culture is rooted in dance. The events of Nigerian stories are told through dance and the stories yet to come will be interpreted through dance as well. Every step and drum rhythm has a meaning and a story behind it. The history of Nigeria is tied to their dance and that is the phenomenal imagery of the Nigerian dances. The dances are used for communication and they “illustrate the meaning and underline the symbolism of those occasions” (Ajai 1). After centuries of history and culture clashes, the function of Nigerian dance has changed to meet modern day needs but, the importance of Nigerian dance has remained the same.
HISTORICAL NIGERIAN DANCES!!!! The historical function of Nigerian dance was to allow the slaves to communicate with the other slaves without the master knowing what was going on. The rigid movement and lack of fluidity in the dances was caused by the European imperialistic culture that clashed with the Nigerian culture. There were several sides of the Nigerian culture that was interrupted by European imperialism. Ancient Yoruba, one of the main cultures in Nigeria, practiced a form of religion that the Europeans referred to as ‘heathenism’ (Parker 42). Being corrupted by colonial conquest is a main reason why Yoruba culture is so rooted in their beliefs and practices. The Nigerians realized that their culture could ultimately be decimated by the Europeans. The Yoruba culture is an example of a project of colonial conquest performed by the Europeans. The Europeans constantly attempted the projects of ‘ethnogenesis,’ or emergence of ethnic groups, with militarized articulacy and Christianized elites, “the heathens” (Dagan 27). The Europeans tried to “revamp and expand European ideologies” on the Nigerian culture, which created the culture clash (Parker 43). The dances that were performed during this horrific time period in history gave the Nigerians the ability to communicate with the other villages; they were used as warning signs. The drum beats and each movement could sign a potential intruder or attack. The drum beat and the dance moves are a call and response form. The drummer beats the rhythm, which is the initial order or command for the people, and the dancers reply. IMPERIALISTIC DANCE SPECIFIC!!! This goes back and forth until the goal is complete. Before imperialism, dance was used as enjoyment and entertainment for festivals; after imperialism, the Nigerians realized how successful their communication through dance was; “African dance... [a] spoken language, is a source of communication though which is possible to demonstrate emotion” (Weish 13). Even though, dance could have been a small form of communication pre-colonialism, post colonialism it was considered a different language for the Nigerians and other African cultures
There are other ways to communicate but the Yoruba people decided that dance was the most efficient means of communication. These dances hold original meaning and representation. NAME OF THE DANCES THAT USE THESE INTRUMENTS!!! DOES MY DANCE INVOLVE THESE INSTRUMENTS!!! They communicate with this drum that is called the Juju Ban (Adigun). The Juju Ban is the “talking drum” of the Yoruba people. It makes the sound of a “dun dun,” is a deep sound that rocks the earth’s foundation. When the drums beat together they are able to shake the souls of the Nigerian people and intensify the message that needs to be deciphered. Along with the Juju Ban, is the Ago ago, which is the cowbell or gong (Adigun). The Ago ago is used to call the people together and to demand attention. These instruments helped the Nigerians communicate the messages that they had. Certain rhythms were to communicate specific messages. Due to the secrecy of the messages that needed to be passed on through different languages, these dances and rhythms in the music told the people all they needed to know. The Nigerian dance is parallel to slave spiritual songs. Their songs held secret meanings and had messages deep in the lyrics; that is what the dances are for the Nigerians. Not only are they beautifully choreographed, but they are a motion picture of historical stories. Along with the historical stories, these dances are used to interpret everyday life. They tell a story with movement and music, “African dance translates everyday experiences into movement” (Weish 14). The dancers during the slavery times were disciplined a certain way in order to keep the secret meanings of the dances from the Europeans. Slavery in Africa was a major culture clash and the disagreement with the practice was expressed through rapid gyrations of the body to a drum beat. The dances during this time was very sexual and was not encouraged for the younger children to perform, “this movement, pelvic contractions, was used in all categories of dances, it was a sexual notion” (Weish 15). Despite the distance between northern and southern Africa, the dances in Nigeria and the sexual style transcribed all over Africa. It was the most effective way to communicate their resentment and disapprobation of the Europeans. These changes that the Europeans forced amongst the Africans have allowed them to unit as one continent with dance as their language of choice, “the shape of current African music and dance in Africa results from a variety of historical changes: ecological, cultural, social, religious, political” (African Holocaust). Along with dance and music, communication has become easier between villages.
Historically, Nigerian dance was used to unite different languages from different villages. SPECIFIC DANC THAT UNITED NIGERIANS!!!! The dances are modified to fit the characteristics of each village, but the meaning remains the same. Possession of land, crops, and women were communicated through dance (Murray 348). This was a way for the villages to understand the boundaries and possessions of the other villages, because they did not always speak the same language. Patterns through the music and dance enable the villages to clarify the message that was given, “musical patterns are often conceived as verbalized in black African culture” (Weish 93). There are patterns with the rhythm of the dance and then there are also patterns for the wardrobes of each specific village. Each village has their own pattern for their African garb; these patterns also contribute to the messages in the dances. During my interview, Olubanjo Adigun, described the “sokogo,” the men’s top, the “iio and gele,” the women’s top and head wrap and the “buba” the unisex bottoms. DESCRIBE MY OUTFIT FOR MY DANCE!!! Possessiveness is a keen aspect for the Nigerian culture and being able to express their possessions or earnings is very important to them (Dagan 40). Through dance a lot can be communicated not just possession, but religion and power as well.
Dance communicates secret messages, possession, religion and power. WHICH DANCE DO THEY USE SPECIFICALLY FOR COMMUNICATION!!! The religion that was hoisted upon the Nigerians during imperialism was not of the characteristics of the Nigerian culture. Christianity was the religion of the Europeans; you achieve the complete form of Christianity after death when you ascend to heaven. Nigeria religion is to praise and celebrate the life that they have now. They connect with their specific gods and praise them for the present time. Their religion is the “here and now;” they do not live a life to hopefully ascend to heaven (African Holocaust). ‘Alik Shahadah, African writer and scholar, believes, “religion is the bottle with a label on it, spirituality is the thing inside;” live for today and not for wishful placement in heaven. In order for the dance to connect with other villages about religion and power it depends on the rhythms and the traditional background. In Nigerian history, there were specific dances for communicating with certain gods (Bergho 27). However, dance does not call the spirits, they affect the human beings. Dance is used to help put the body into a state of trance and enable the individual to ‘see’ the spirit world (African Holocaust). The rhythm and volume of the drums has the power to call and communicate with the spirits. The call and response that the dancer and drummers perform is a way for the Yoruba people to communicate with the gods of their specific religion. The Yoruba people communicate with gods for rain, bountiful harvest, and blissful life; “Even if they hurl accusations at one another in the course of the dance, the next moment, the people become a unit, singing, clapping and moving together” (African Holocaust). Although the historical function of Nigerian dance was to communicate with the people from the other villages and the gods above, today, they perform these dances for enjoyment for their audiences.
The modern day function of Nigerian dance is still used as communication, but more for performance purposes. THE NAME AND PERFORMANCE OF MODERN DANCE!!! The dances are performed for certain ceremonies and religious events and festivals (Ajayi 43). Even though they tend to perform the same traditional dances that were once used as a secret language, now these dances are supposed to be enjoyed and not broken down to relay a secret message. There are more celebrations in Nigeria after the imperialistic times, so the Nigerians are able to dance more without being worried if their messages would be un-coded by the Europeans. These dances are used for fun and communication, but not so much for another language to hide secrets; no longer is it necessary to communicate escape plans or depressed emotions. Before, the dances were meant to be dark and depressing, now, the Nigerian dancers want to portray their enjoyment and excitement. The foundation of African dance will never change; communication of emotions and events will always be the main function of Nigerian dance.
In modern day Nigerian dance is kept traditional. MODERN DAY DANCE THAT IS VERY TRADITIONAL!!! The dancers are dancing with conviction and purpose. They want to preserve the value and keep the appreciation for the history of Nigerian dance alive (Bergho 12). The teaching of Nigerian dance has changed from generation to generation; however, Mr. Olubanjo Adigun is a Nigerian dance teaches and he only teaches the traditional Yoruba dances. He is an adamant believer in the preservation of historical Nigerian dance. He stresses that if you are going to learn how to do Nigerian dance, it needs to be the traditional and the original version; which is to connect languages and break down barriers, even in the modern day. The historical dances that are danced today still hold commutative value in the Nigerian society. For example, these dances would be danced at festivals or for the king in Nigeria: the Fisherman’s dance would celebrate the end of the fishing days. The dance before the Harvest season begins is the Edo dance (Anonymous). The main type of dance that the Yoruba people dance is the Bi-Okoto dance which is the “twirling” dance. This dance is made up of mostly spins and twirls. The women’s buba flares up and creates a beautiful visual of dancers dancing in sync with the wind. The women’s buba is specific to the dance that is being performed. The African garb matches the tone of the dance and the message of the performance. The headdress, iio, is something that is required for the women to wear for each dance (Dagan 45). In comparison to preserving the traditional dance, the drummers keep that same promise; they preserve the traditional drum beats and rhythms. In conjunction to my earlier statement, the rhythm of the drums and the dancing are a form of communication for the African tribes.
Dance has the ability to connect those of several different languages, religions and cultures; dance is the universal language. The Nigerians have proved to themselves and those of the western world that anything can be communicated through dance. The function of Nigerian dance for communication of secret messages, possession of literal and spiritual objects, religion and power has served the people of Nigeria well. The art of call and response has proved to show how helpful the volume of the drums and the visual excitement of the dancers for calling the people to the king, gods, or away from a dangerous situation. The historical and modern function of Nigerian dance have similarities, in that Nigerian dance is still a prominent form of communication.
After researching and learning more about the purpose and reason for Nigerian dance, I have come to realization that African dance, in general, is a wonderful and beautiful art form. After understanding the rich history behind the dance I have more of an appreciation for the Nigerian dancers. The Nigerian dance that I learned has a lot of bending over and crouching close to the ground. I know these steps have a lot of historical reference and tradition that sacred to their culture. It is a traditional Bi-Okoto dance which was used for communicating with the people of Nigeria. I have had to change the way that I learn dances because Nigerian dance is a different learning process then in western culture dances. I am unable to count each step; I must be one with the drum (Adigun). This dance is choreographed with multiple turns and spins; I must bend my knees and get closer to the ground. These are the movements that I disliked in African dance, but after learning the history I am able to appreciate these moves because they hold value to the dancers and people of Nigeria. The step that bends over close to the ground is to appreciate the earth that we walk on. Next, I raise my arms high above me to give praise to the gods that have given me a life. I wrap my arms around my body to show that protection is all around and that I am blessed. I repeat these moves several times to create this dance that expresses my appreciation for the world that the gods have given me. Mr. Olbanjo Adigun told me that if you are not one with the drum the spiritual and visual parts of the dance are lost. I must listen and feel what the drum is saying. At the end of learning this dance and researching this topic, I have learned that there is more to the performance than just getting the steps correct. The Nigerian dance is so sacred to the culture; their dancers and drummer are highly respected and held at a high standard to always understand the meaning behind each dance. I must take the information that I learned and apply it to my criticism of African dance. I know now that each movement, each drum beat and each step holds historical value and could have been the message to escape from an European attack, or that the king is arriving, or that harvest season has begun. The historical and modern function of Nigerian dance is to communicate, so let us communicate through dance.
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