Illustration by Bruna Borges
[ID: Illustration with a black background. There is a symbolic representation of the afterlife/ancestors in white, followed by a child playing a drum in orange, then a kid dancing, followed by an adult and then an ancient dancing, followed by the afterlife representation.]
Africans don’t need anyone to define us. Our cultures are the fabric of our skin, our blood flow, our heart beat. By the age of 3, an African child can move aptly to African rhythms. “Who taught them?” No one. It’s in us.
When I was 5, I followed my mother to a burial of a prominent Chief in my village in Amichi. It felt like a Carnival. Many dances, rituals, and masquerades were on display, but one engulfed me in its spirit. Egwu Amara. As the dancers emerged with energy and grace, my mother was stunned as to how, without much effort, I joined them, copying every move to the letter. My ability to execute the movement, despite my young age, meant that people sprayed me lots of money to show appreciation. At the climax of the performance, three performers in costumes depicting mermaids danced onto the stage with pythons curled around their waists. I got terrified and ran to my mother to seek refuge. Clutched to my mother’s thighs, I watched, entranced as the performer conveyed tenderness, majesty and many other emotions hard to describe.
Thinking back to this moment, I can’t help but think about dance as not just a discipline and form of entertainment but of who we are as people. Traditionally, for us, dance is embedded in every aspect of our culture; spiritual, occupational, rites of passage, communal, and yes also entertainment.
If we lose our dances. We lose our culture. We lose our traditions. We lose ourselves.
Traditionally, Igbo communities have dance practices that guide essentially every aspect of life, and it is critical that we preserve them.
For spiritual health, we have practices such as Ese music and dance from Mbaise, Imo State used to bid farewell to an accomplished and of-age (70+ years) person who has died to the realm of the ancestors. Or Egwu Amara, by the riverine (River Niger) communities in Anambra and Delta state, used to venerate water deities, and portray their agency over territorial waters and underwater life.
As an occupational practice, we witness friends and family coming together in solidarity and support during farming season. They sing and till soil in the rhythm of the music. Which makes farm work less tedious, and more fun. They chant songs with their names to motivate and boost morale and mock those lagging behind. In turn, some of our Igbo dances exist as depictions of our occupational activities like farming, fishing, wine tapping, hunting, as reminders or our roots.
During marriage rites, and initiation into stages or sectors of society, dances like Nkwa Umuagbogho and Ikorodo serve as tools to engage attendants while also providing an avenue to expose people of marital age to potential suitors.
Okanga, from Enugu state and Ikpirikpi Ogu aka Ohafia War Dance serve as tools for communication in communities, passing down messages, historical information, and words of wisdom to those who witness. Okanga, a dance specifically for accomplished men, have dancers use body movements to depict to the audience how many cows or horses they have killed, as these animals are seen as highly valuable. In Ikpirikpi Ogu from Abia state, the dancers are seen carrying human heads (props) on their heads to show victory over their enemy. Additionally, some Igbo traditional musical instruments, like Ekwe, Ogene, and Oja are used to communicate to the community in the cases of danger, death, emergency, or celebration.
Atilogu/Atilogwu and Ogene are Igbo folkloric dances that have roots in traditional forms, but emerge primarily for entertainment. Atilogu, a high-energy and acrobatic form is experienced at burials, New Yam festivals, coronations, weddings, carnivals and any event that calls for sideshows and attractions.
Africans are rich in tradition, and we have so much already available to us. My Igbo people, our culture is gradually eroding, and unless intentional and deliberate measures are taken to preserve our beautiful and dynamic traditions, we will go extinct.
I have started my own work towards the goal of replanting our traditional dances, and thus practices. I formed Okachamma Dance Troupe International, a dance performance group that explores many forms of dances not just from Igbo communities but from other Nigerian cultures, to preserve our cultural dances and pass the knowledge to the next generations. Okachamma shares histories, artifacts, and practices in conventional schools, community arenas, and the public sphere.
Because if we lose our dance, we lose ourselves, and I will do anything for that 5-year old child, clutching his mothers thighs, entranced and engulfed, feeling the pride and certainty of his culture.
This article appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of In Dance.