Dance among the Igbo in Nigeria

Abstract by: Lisa Feldmann, Doris Richter genannt Kemmermann

Dance, in general, serves different purposes. Its main overt functions are use in religious rituals and ceremonies, the expression of social structures within a society and the expression of economic life. Moreover dance is performed for entertainment or simply to keep people physically fit. Some people use dance as an educational technique by repeating patterns of social behaviour to educate children or to introduce new members into society. Dance is never a static form of expression. Its movements and gestures vary from people to people.

Dance among the Igbos in Nigeria is a combination of music and dance and plays an important role in the individual life-cycle. The term egwu conveys everything dancing means in the Igbo society, such as: dance, music, play, humour, fun, drama. Whenever a dance is performed all senses are addressed.

Traditional dance can be quite symbolic, especially in the dance plays. But sometimes movements are just designed to be harmonious. If symbols are found in a dance they usually refer to fertility.

With the exception of war dances, dances are performed in larger groups. All members of this group belong to one age group and the common dance formation is in form of a circle. The dancers follow a dance leader, but each member may vary his steps to a certain degree. The overall elasticity is kept by changes in the rhythm.

Obviously, there exists a separation of sexes which can only be lifted by young people. Male dance groups usually do not have any female members whereas female dance groups have at least one male member.

While female dances are always accompanied by singing, some male dances might be without it. Male dances are more energetic, loud and accompanied by many instruments. Female dances on the whole are gentle and graceful. Women use a lot of arm movements as well as hip and buttock movements. Men shake their shoulder and belly muscles instead. They need a lot of space because they take bigger steps.

The Omabe-masquerades from the village group Eha-Alumona are performed to invite admired ancestors back to life. The masked dancers are possessed by the spirits and they speak through them. The living hope to get advice and prophecies from people they regard as wise and just. Especially in difficult land disputes, the Igbos rely on their ancestors to find equitable solutions. Similar to this is the Onumonu-masquerade, but in this case the Igbos do not ask their ancestors for help but deities.

The war dance from the Ohafia people serves a quite different purpose. It is performed to celebrate the individual achievements of a single person. But as all members of the village celebrate in the manner they can identify themselves with the commmunity. The war dance reflects the relationship between the brave ancestors and the successful living members of the society. Every member of the society learns what it means to be an Ohafia.

The Oje Ogwu dance in Afikpo is simply meant for entertainment. It contains no symbolic meaning. All that counts is the individual ability to dance. If the dancer´s performance is good he receives presents from the audience and will be a well respected - person in the society.
Another dance in Afikpo, the chumkpa dance is a dance play. The parodies that are performed comment on actual events observed in the village. The fixed part at the end of the dance reprimands the adolescent girls in the village not to be too independent and to fulfill their ´natural´ role as a wife and mother.

The Nkwa di iche iche dance from Ubakala is a dance play, too. It is performed to socialise, to explain rules of behaviour and to clarify the soul. Each Nkwa, meaning dance and drum, has a main theme and is performed by a special group with special instruments and a special style of dance with a special pattern. Each Nkwa consists of different dances and each dance is combined with a special song. Some of the Nkwas are only performed by women for women. They help to explain young women their female role and its fears and worries. At the same time the dances are a means to express the women´s complaints in a male dominated world.

Nowadays the traditional dances have change a lot. While dance groups travel through the country they change their way of dancing. They adopted foreign elements of dances or revised the dances for stage performance. Sometimes the remaining dances are mere reflections of the originals. In contemporary dance groups the movements are taken out of their original context and have therefore lost their symbolic content.


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