Arnold Benjamin Udoka*


In the ancient African world, dances were shared knowledge between the community and the individual. In the colonial and post colonial Africa, phenomenal changes have affected the management of these dances and their migration from ordained functions and spaces to entertainment on the modern stage. The mutation of the dances of Africa from folk spaces to the modern stage is a development shaped by the conditions of the 20th century.

Dances of Africa are known to have existed on the mother continent for as long as memory can recall. Some records of such dances in past civilizations across the continent have come to us from impressions on rocks and on the walls of caves. Somehow, these images point to the attitudes of the ancient peoples in relation to the world. Beyond these images, the oral practice of handing over traditions from one generation to another has remained the only method of dance knowledge transfer. This method is susceptible to improper record keeping of what constituted dance in the past apart from drum signalling texts. This has caused debates as to whether the dances of Africa were purely and solely religious or and to what extent the dances were expressed as an art form. There are contentions from the West that the dances of Africa are sheer display of thoughtless motions by animists. This is a wholesale attempt to discredit the pre-colonial civilizations of Africa generally. But the indigenous peoples still hold the view that their dances are both expressions of their knowledge.

These dances that were once lived experiences have transited to the modern stage as a result of invasions and displacements by colonialism. The impact of colonialism, the dynamics of globalization, the challenges of modernization processes and technology have threatened the existence and survival of all intangible heritages within indigenous cultural frameworks. Indigenous dances of Africa, as part and parcel of the content of indigenous cultural narratives, are endangered and are fading into obscurity due to overload of osmotic pull of paradoxical values. There exists now a diasporic syndrome of cultural displacement, institutional displacement, choice displacement, ethnic displacement, authority displacement and attitudinal displacement on the African continent of today. All this counters the character of African cultures and has reshaped the way to think, to behave, to become and invariably, to be identified. The modern stage is also an element of this displacement dynamic.

Resistance Theatre and Dialectics of Anger

The resistance against colonial domination in Africa was a statement made at multi-levels and with different modes which deployed the dialectics of past and present social orders for aggression on the one hand and mobilization on the other. The concoction of psychological militancy needed ancestral ideals of freedom to mobilise indigenous peoples for political resistance. It required the “burgling” of the storehouse of oral tradition and delving into the semantics of sacred traditions in order to tap into the ideals of Africans’ ideas of freedom in the service of the course of building nationalism. The dances of Africa were part of this mission.

The resurgence of interest in dances from the oral traditions of Africa was an acknowledgement of the cultural capital of these expressions in defining identity, sincerity of purpose, conformity and commitment. With the flexibility of the contents of the dances, they became useful in creating a mindset informed by ancestral ties and ancient wisdom. They lent the morals in their spatial and temporal kinetics to the sanctity of freedom and self-determination to re-enact the reality that was considered robbed; a representation to rally collective action against a common enemy within the political space. The once declining dances as the consequence of colonial policies were now weaned by the dialectics of anger against the rejection of colonialism. Other idioms of indigenous expressions were in use, too. Van der Puye informs us that “during the fight for independence, African theatre and cultural forms became elements of resistance and the struggle for independence. Songs, dances and ritual dramas mobilized people to understand and reject their colonial situation” ( In the process, indigenous idioms of artistic representations were seen as bastions of a common patrimony and this supported the change of political perspectives of the Africans in the clamour for independence.

As catalyst in the resistance struggle, dances of Africa crossed the limits of the boundaries set for them by customs and were available for functions other than what they were intended for. As mechanisms for resistance in the colonial era, dances of Africa re-instated, re-affirmed and reclaimed their relevance, sentimentally though, to the course of self-determination. Sometimes, they were in the folk opera genre which was suffused with indigenous and Western style contents and with overtly political themes attacking colonial rule. A good example is Nigeria’s Ogunde theatre’s “Worse Than Crime, Strike and Hunger (both 1945), Tiger’s Empire (1946), Towards Liberty (1947), and Bread and Bullet (1950)” (Clark 83). His Opening and Closing glees sections were always suffused with songs and dances. With such prodigious output and titles drooling with clichés of the characteristics of colonialism as oppression, suppression and slavery, Ogunde’s theatre succeeded in the mission to create consciousness to resist colonial rule. By drawing from the cultural pool of his culture “this theatre was the only one consciously aimed at preserving the cultural identity of the nation, even though this cultural identity was mainly that of the Yoruba” (Clark 83). With over 508 diverse languages (and still counting), Nigerian cultures did not mind which one of them was “speaking” for the people as long as the rhetoric was against the forceful occupation of its ancestral geographical lands and the subordinating and exploitative ideology of colonialism. This serves as proof that indigenous dances raised the consciousness and mobilisation of Africans during this period and contributed to the cultural nationalism of the period in the cultural contest with the colonists.


The political elite, aware of the cultural capital in the struggle, rode on the sentiments of the time and deployed the dances to legitimise their positions and claimed the support of large sections of the population to inflict destructive political injuries on the colonists. The resistance theatre phenomenon catalysed the resurgence of dances of Africa as aspects of oral tradition in the struggle against exploitation and for self-determination.

Theatricalization of the Dances of Africa

It seems difficult for Africans to come up with a positive mental cultural image because of the existing racial grid whereby Western cultures are presented as superior, more advanced and ideal than other cultures. The issues these have generated in African societies have caused what can be termed the “westernizing of Africa.” The “craving” for this westernizing effect has forced the substitution of what the ideal is to what the West has approved. So, the dances of Africa are subjected to these undercurrents of events, alterations and perceptions directed at achieving the Caucasian ideal. The abstract and holistic African approach which is the norm has been sidelined, relegated and not supported by either the social structure or the elite class. It is a fait accompli that for relevance the dance traditions must upgrade to survive.

It is a fact that the proscenium stage, a Greco-Roman contraption, metamorphosed from ancient Greek amphitheatre is one of the new “systems of social signals” (Williams 130) in Africa of today. Contemporary architectural designs of theatres in Africa have adopted this model. Consequently, the dances of Africa adopting Western artistic orientation and presentation style are structured for entertainment to fit into this theatre. In Africa, the theatricalization of her dances is construed as the attempt to transform indigenous performances, which were hitherto essentially utilitarian artistic products, to mere spectacles contrived for the entertainment of transnational audiences. It is pertinent here to note the use of the word audience (in modern theatre) in the sense that it is all about hearing and should not be misconstrued with the word spectator (in traditional Africa performance setting) that connotes observing as a cultural activity. This lexical conflict underscores a cultural conflict in terms of perception and reception of theatre presentations.

The theatricalized dances of Africa draw their charm from the imitation of traditional presentation techniques peculiar to the cultures of their origins. As theatricalized dances, they are no longer aboriginal and cannot lay claim to authenticity or originality. Because they have been modernized, they are scant in artistic details and concerns of their original cultures because they are not created to support the stylised modes of indigenous communication systems, but as artefact from the memory of cultures. These have become products to be herded by promoters for purely entertainment purposes and profit as necessitated by social reformations at the behest of extra continental economics.

The educational systems and theatre curricula in Africa, whether Anglophone, Francophone or Luxol countries, support and promote theatre in the Western sense and have generated an elite class followership. This development points in one direction: the Westward view of theatre, and will continue to undermine the indigenous presentation formats as long as these elite classes constitute the gatekeepers of developmental policies of governments. Again, the absence of critical analysis of this development from academia might continue to impede recognition of the need for a rethink on this subject. These inform Onuoara Enekwe’s advice that for indigenous dance “to reach its intended mark, practitioners and teachers must carry out a thorough study of the nature, form and aesthetics of the dance so as effectively to ward off the bad influences of certain Western scholars who see art as mere entertainment” (28). It is the hope that these institutions saddled with the responsibility of research would invest their resources in this direction, to preservation of the values of the dance traditions of Africa.

Although some dances are still practiced in their original and aboriginal forms by some sections of African cultures, it can be said with all certainty that the theatricalization of the dances of Africa has introduced another dimension to the place of dance and function of dance. It is responsible for the development of dance as an industry. These dances are now—in whatever form they are presented—products for sale and no longer for the social relations purposes for which they earlier served. Dance has also become professionalized. The modern stage, therefore, is the success factor of dance as a profession in Africa.

Commodification of the Dance Heritage of Africa

Modern colonialism from 1494 AD (Stuchtey 1) and capitalism from 1555 AD (Farmer, par 13) are known to have formed an economic hegemony for more than four hundred years. They are at the centre of the capitalist logic of commodification. Deriving from the theory of “commodity fetishism” by Karl Marx, commodification is defined by Dino Felluga as “the subordination of both private and public realms to the logic of capitalism” ( And, according to Marshall Gordon, commodification “refers to the production of commodities for exchange (via the market) as opposed to direct use by the producer” (<>). Central to both definitions is the object of goods for monetary value thus engendering a consumer population to drive production and circulation of such goods. The knock-on commodifying effects of both colonialism and capitalism have expressed themselves beyond the political, religious and economics spheres of Africa to that of culture and everything has become a good for sale. This development has challenged, smashed the philosophy of dances of Africa and introduced complications that were never anticipated.

In the new social dispensation, the entrepreneurial/capitalist spirit dominates and dictates that the dances meet the aesthetic recipe and needs of the audience. So, the adapted versions of traditional dances of Africa into the categories of African contemporary dances or creative dances from Africa are meant for the modern stage. The modern stage symbolises a strategy for the commodification of dances of Africa in both traditional and modern forms which also extends to the pervasive deployment of media sources and platforms in trading performances in full or in parts to the public.

The first acclaimed commodification of dances of Africa is credited to Fodeba Keita’s “Les Ballets Africains, the world’s first professional and internationally touring African performance company” (Cohen 12). The French origin of Les Ballets Africains is an eloquent indication that Fodeba Keita did not set out to recreate an authentic Guinean cultural performance experience even though “the aim of the group was to bring traditional African culture to Western audiences.” (Huey, par 1). Harold Clurman observed that the dances of Ballets Africains “are not of purely aboriginal or ancient tradition” (qtd. in Cohen 20). The motivation was to sell a spectacle associated with the exotic. This substantiates the need for adaptation in order for the package to meet the commodification value. It is reported that Keita’s “artistic project took shape across media, involving film and television appearances, music albums, radio broadcasts, posters, ads, and media coverage” (13) from the middle of the 20th century in France. Keita deployed all available media resources at his disposal to his advantage for the circulation of the product.


Ogunde’s African Music Research Party and its various arms are known to have deployed the promotional methods since its inception in 1940s for its dance performances. Records show that, from 1944 until the Ogunde theatre phenomenon terminated in the late 1970s, the theatre had deployed posters to advertise its products and also received rave reviews from local newspapers, and these must have complemented the Ogunde theatre’s successful performances in 162 venues across Nigeria and 52 venues in both Anglophone and Francophone countries, in the West African sub-region (Clark 149-53). The company later produced music on vinyl and also moved into celluloid film productions to reach wider markets. Ogunde commoditized his products.

The resources for the commodification principle were also deployed in what Siemon Allen describes as the “1974 exploitative musical Ipi-Tombi produced by Bertha Egnos, considered by many to be propaganda for the apartheid government” ( The musical made more tours outside of Africa. This show ran for over 20 years making use of the media to generate interest in its product. This 1974 box office-breaking production was first appreciated in far-flung countries like Nigeria from the vinyl recording and audio tapes before its first performance in Lagos on 30 September, 1976. The Ipi Tombi audio CD is distributed by EMI and the video on VHS format marketed by Ipi Tombi is also now on YouTube.

The successes of the world tours of all three troupes performing dances of African creation are traceable to commodification. Riding on the spell of Western aesthetic concepts, the iconographies of dances of Africa have become demystified and iconoclastic. Thus the mercantilist strategy has supplanted the primeval role of dances of Africa and consolidated the infrastructure of modern theatre as an economic game-changer. However, the GDP and GNP of the countries of the sponsors are either silent or consciously neglect reflecting how these trades impact their economies. Could this be considered an economic conspiracy?

The commodification of dances of and from Africa also translates to the loss of men and women of integrity who could have jealously guarded the authenticity of the dances of Africa and ensure that these cultural heritages are transmitted to posterity. Indeed, through the commodification principle, the modern stage has attempted to scorch tribal dances out of existence. Research and studies to measure the successes or otherwise of these profit-making mentality in relation to the development of culture are so far not known to this writer. It can only be speculated that the commodification principle has created an economy out of the dances of and from Africa for a very few; entertainments for a handful. A pertinent question at this point is: does the commodification of dances of Africa meet the demands for socio-cultural emancipation of the African continent? The answer seems to be in two parts: first, a straightforward no and, second, it is for the tourist industry.

What can be taken away from here is the invasion of the heritage of dances of Africa by economic commoditisers who are of course aware that some aspects of African cultures are not treated as commodities; the conversion of amateur dancers/dancing to professional dancers/dancing; the conversion of social performances into exchange products; the conversion of dances for open spaces into halls for sale; the conversion of dances of Africa to spectacles for the market; the conversion of non gate-paying spectators into ticket-buying audiences; the cultivation of the need to see these dances by a consuming public. By virtue of the commodification principle, the capitalist draws revenue from the educated, the middle class and the youth. The poor rural dwellers are excluded in this entrepreneurial scheme even though the virtues of the dances belong to them.

The Politics of Dance in Modern Africa

The deployment of dance in politics is, therefore, not a recent development in modern history. Historically and ideologically, dance in the arena of modern politics has been known since 1653 when King Louis XIV of France danced the part of Apollo, the Sun god, in the ballet entitled “Le Ballet Royal de la Nuit” (Brinson and Crisp 9). From then on, he declared in real life that he personified the state (Lee 67). It is clear from here, that politicians have learnt and mastered that art of using dance to legitimise their positions. In Africa, since the 1960s, when new nations gained independence, dances have been used in the attempt to create national identities and for nation building. This is a carryover from the struggle for independence when dance became a tool in the raising of social consciousness and mobilisation against the colonial regime. The new regimes have adopted the dances of their cultures to connect the pre-colonial cultural memory to the post-colonial period in order to shore up nationalism and establish their moral authority.


As a strategy for nationalism and gesture of patriotism, President Sekou Toure of Guinea adopted Fodeba Keita’s privately-owned Les Ballets Africains as the national and international flagship of diplomacy. The name changed to Les Ballets Africains de la République de Guinée (the National Ballet of Guinea) in 1960. The government started funding the performing outfit from then onward and this troupe is known to have toured extensively. Before the adoption, “between 1948 and 1958, Les Ballets Africains de Keïta Fodéba were greatly involved in disseminating African culture by performing in Africa and in Western and Eastern Europe (USSR)” ( accounting for hundreds of performances as well 48 shows on Broadway in 1959  ( Recounting one of the numerous exploits of the Les Ballets in the 1960s and 1970s, a concert programme recalls that “they appeared in 165 capital cities, presenting 695 performances in 730 days” ( Such were the exploits of this troupe on the modern stage.

Also, in Nigeria, during the stratocratic government of President Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, he appointed Hubert Ogunde as Consultant and Artistic Director with the responsibility to initiate the nucleus of the National Troupe of Nigeria in 1988. Records show that apart from his extensive tours in West Africa and around Nigeria, his troupe also represented Nigeria at the Expo’67 in Montreal, Canada, as well as performed in the Apollo Theatre, Harlem, New York and at the International Llangollen Eisteddfod and in Croydon (Clark xvviii-xix), both in the United Kingdom. The award-winning National Troupe of Nigeria he helped to set up has in the past 26 years represented the country in the United States of America, Japan, Germany, China, Switzerland, Algeria, Zambia, South Africa, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Korea, Republic of Korea, Ghana, Congo, Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, Portugal, Benin Republic, India, United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Gambia on several occasions to bilateral cultural agreements. Other dance troupes run by State governments and private individuals are also sent out for such purposes.

Bertha Ehnos’ Ipi Tombi, the award-winning musical, although not a government set up, was treated as such and considered the image launderer for apartheid South Africa.  The musical, which exploited the cultural iconography of the Zulu, received a lot of flak from African states and other anti-Apartheid nations and organizations globally. Created by a white South African, Ipi Tombi was performed by South Africans of Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Ndebele, Swazi and Tswana extractions. Its superlative international outings in many ways softened the virulent rhetoric against the regime to some degree. With 1879 performances in the West End at Her Majesty’s Theatre ( and 39 shows and 17 previews at Broadway’s Harkness Theatre, 1977 (, Ipi Tombi introduced the world to different narratives from the infamous apartheid enclave. Politically speaking, Ipi Tombi won the hearts for South Africa.


Effectively, African governments have engaged the dances of Africa in ideological advocacy, cultural diplomacy and to counter sentiments perpetrated against them by the hegemonic global media, such as Les Ballets Africains de la République de Guinée, the National Troupe of Nigeria or the business-like Ipi Tombi of South Africa represent. These nations have also evolved and exploited dances for touristic purposes and sustained the cultural export industry for governments and the private sector of Africa as the cases of Les Ballets Africains de la République de Guinée and Ipi Tombi are proofs. It is needful to note that the narratives espoused by these dances are incoherent with the aboriginal point of view, but the troupes that perform them are essentially deemed as cultural ambassadors of their nations.

Governments in Africa have evolved cultural policies that situate the dance as objects in the project of governance. To this end, the cliché “standing dance troupe” rings in the corridors of power of African nations, signifying that as part of controlling the resources of state, arts councils, theatres and troupes are run by governments. While these indigenous dances might never command their centrality in the culture any longer, they are recognized as part of cultural memory, history, identity, mode of communication and an art form. Dance programmes are now in vogue in universities across Africa and individuals too have established institutions for the training of dancers. The expectation now is to have a university in the continent that operates a dance department which would give space and time for research to reveal the deeper levels of dance as a human and social activity in the continent, even as it mutates from folk forms to the modern stage. Politically speaking, this approach might be more robust in enriching the cultural integrity of African nations in the search for social orders in the present dispensations.

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Arnold Udoka

*Arnold Udoka is Nigeria’s foremost multi-talented and award winning choreographer, Dance Teacher, Playwright ad Culture Administrator. He has been Director, Dance of the National Troupe of Nigeria since 1991. He obtained his B.A, postgraduate qualifications in Dance Studies (Choreography, Sociology of Dance and Dance History) at the University of Calabar, Nigeria and at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, Goldsmiths College, University of London. In the last four decades, his works have toured over two dozen cities in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South Americas. He is the founding President, Association of Dance Scholars and Practitioners of Nigeria and also Chairman, National Advisory Council of the Guild of Nigerian Dancers.

Copyright © 2016 Arnold Udoka
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Dances of Africa: From Lived Experience to Entertainment