‘bend your yansh’

Five of Nigeria’s most popular dance forms and their origins

By Olubunmi Familoni

Posted on May 5, 2023 15:34

 © A new Red Bull TV documentary, ‘(Un)credited – The Story of Afro Dance’, shines a light on African dance culture using Red Bull Dance Your Style Nigeria as a backdrop. (Photo by Tyrone Bradley / Red Bull Content Pool via AFP)
A new Red Bull TV documentary, ‘(Un)credited – The Story of Afro Dance’, shines a light on African dance culture using Red Bull Dance Your Style Nigeria as a backdrop. (Photo by Tyrone Bradley / Red Bull Content Pool via AFP)

Dance, in African culture, transcends the physical response of the body to music – it is more than mere motion, as in the movement of limbs in concert with sound. It is more than the feet answering the throaty call of the ‘dundun’, or the shoulders and waist in conversation with the talking drum.

In evaluating the art of dancing in Africa and the black diaspora, the African-American ethno-musicologist, Esi-Kinni Olusanyin identifies the dancer’s body as incorporating the sensibilities and direct dynamics of expression, and translating them into movements that correspond to the music.

It goes beyond bending the buttocks to the beat of the bata, in the fashion of Fela Kuti bidding his listeners to “bend their yansh like black man” on his 1971 record, Open & Close (which was also the name of the dance to the song), or the African woman doing the ‘fire dance’ in contrast to Fela’s eponymous Lady’s dance.

Dance in Africa is an important element in many of the cultural activities that the body partakes in; from religious ceremonies, masquerade processions, and funeral rites to sporting activities, nuptial rituals, and weddings.

At different times in the history of Nigerian music, dance has been at its centre, across genres, with dancers – from Dodo Mayana (Afrobeat) to Tessy Yembra (juju and fuji), Kaffy Shafau, and Soliat Bada (Afrobeats) – garnering acclaim and fame with dance moves that have added colour to performances by musicians, from stage to the screen.

Here’s a list of the most popular Nigerian dances that have accompanied hit tracks, taken their names from the titles of these songs, and gone on to become waves of their own, even after the songs’ popularity dwindled, being the dance to all the songs of the period in which they had existed.

1. Alanta

The duo of Ice-K and Adex met in 1995 and formed the group Artquake. But the biggest hit of their career didn’t come until 13 years later, in 2008, in the form of Alanta, a song over which there are claims it was originally made in the early 2000s by an obscure Ajegunle musician, Peter Alanta, who is also the originator of the titular dance.

Nevertheless, it is the Artquake version that gave the song and its dance the massive popularity it enjoyed between 2008 and 2009. There are also many who believe that the atlanta was the precursor of another popular dance, shaku-shaku, which emerged on the mainstream pop scene about ten years later.

The chorus of the song functions as a dance tutorial, with instructions on how to do the Atlanta: “open your arms like say you wan fly away, ju’pa, ju’se sibi je ka jo ma sere (throw your legs and arms out, let’s play together)”.

The shoulders are raised, with elbows turned outwards, as if arms are akimbo, and hands with fingers spread out beating a rhythm as if scratching the air in front of the chest, or as if the dancer is trying to put out a fire in front of the body by fanning himself, as part of the chorus says, “e be like fire dey burn my body, je kin fera, oru n mu mi (it seems as if my body is on fire; let me blow some air on my body, I’m feeling hot)”. In coordination with these upper-body movements, the legs are raised one after the other (“alanta, alanta, alanta, one leg up; alanta, alanta, alanta, two legs up”).

This dance evokes the image of a display by a lunatic on the street, as depicted in the music video, where a Pentecostal pastor is in the middle of a deliverance session with a young lady and she breaks into dancing the alanta.

The dance steps, which resemble the body being broken into tiny pieces, because of how involved the entire body is in this energetic kinetic statement, also bring to mind an anecdote about Wole Soyinka during rehearsals for the Chicago production of his play, Death and the King’s Horseman, in 1976; he said he and the choreographer, had had to break the bodies of the African-American actors into little pieces and put them back together before they learned to move like Africans.

2. Skelewu

Skelewu was a 2013 top song by Davido, an Afrobeats artiste who is no stranger to banging out hits. There was no doubt that this was a dance-centric song; apart from how naturally the shakers-dominated Shizzi-produced beat called the feet to the dance floor, as a promotional gimmick, a few days after the release of the single, Davido uploaded an instructional dance video to YouTube, announcing the Skelewu Dance Competition, which eventually went viral, propelling the song to further heights and making the dance even more popular.

The first music video for the song (directed by Sesan) was leaked almost about the same time the winner of the dance competition was announced, and there was some controversy about that “unauthorized release”, which precipitated another video being shot and released, by a different director (Moe Musa), about a week later.

All this attention contributed to making Skelewu one of the biggest songs of that year, and the dance one of the most popular, with celebrities such as Emmanuel Adebayor and Samuel Eto’o uploading videos of themselves doing the dance, and it went on to bag a nomination for Most Gifted Dance Video at the 2014 Channel O Music Video Awards.

Just like Alanta, there are instructions in the chorus on how to do the dance; “wind your hips like a dis, like a dat, to your right, to the front, and your yansh to the back, and skelewu, skelewu”.

Most of the work is in the waist, which is being wound makossa-style as one arm is akimbo on the hip and the other hand pushing out in front of the body, with the shoulders doing a forward rolling movement and feet shuffling side to side or back and forth.

As there is in Alanta, there is a reference to one of the most popular dances to emerge from Ajegunle, galala; alluding to how this new dance, skelewu, had come to usurp it: “all the girls dem dey dance galala/ but this new dance don cause kasala (all the girls are dancing galala/but this new dance has caused an upset)”.

3. Yahoozee

More than a crime, yahoo (internet fraud) grew into something of a counterculture among young people in the mid to late noughties, with its own fashion, lifestyle, lingo, and music.

The most popular song in celebration of this counterculture was the anthemic Yahoozee, released in the latter part of 2007 when yahoo was just beginning to entrench its roots within the young demographic of the country and “yahoo boys”, the mostly elusive cyber criminals, were becoming something resembling street gods in urban neighbourhoods and clubs. Boys and young men, who had changed their economic status by preying on unsuspecting victims mostly from the West, were now being idolized by friends, family, and musicians.

Yahoozee went on to become a monster hit that reigned throughout the year following its release and was the only major commercial success that Olu Maintain recorded after his former group, Maintain (with Tolu and producer Big Bamo), split up in 2004.

Yahoozee gained even more prominence on the global scene when Olu performed it at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall during the Africa Rising Festival of 2008 and the former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, joined him on stage to do the dance. The yahoozee dance is an imitation of a person flinging money in the air, as spraying cash is a major part of Nigeria’s party culture.

In an antithetical twist, the dance was also a major feature in most of the alujo gospel music released by celebrated juju musician, Yinka Ayefele. In the middle of singing praises to God, Ayefele would call on listeners to do the yahoozee, a dance with origins in the glorification of criminality.

4. Zanku (legwork)

Zanku, as a dance, had first appeared in the music videos of Zlatan’s Jogor (featuring Lil Kesh and Naira Marley) and Able God, the Chinko Ekun hit that featured Lil Kesh and Zlatan. These songs, released during the 2018 reign of shaku-shaku, began an entire wave of Zlatan hits and were a fitting predecessor to the Marlian era of 2019. It was obvious that there was some deliberateness to creating a distinct sound for what was to come after shaku-shaku, as they were produced by the Marlian Music in-house producer who was later responsible for the biggest hits of Naira’s 2019 Marlian movement, Rexxie.

And when it was time for Zlatan to make a christening track for the dance we had been seeing him do, it was only expected that he would turn to Rexxie. Zanku, the song and the dance, became club and radio favourites, and as Zlatan put it in Ijaya, a freestyle he did in 2019, “mo fun shaku ni t-fare, mo ni ko ma lo ile/ Rexxie lo fun mi ni beat, mo gbe zanku wole (I gave shaku transport fare and asked it to go home/ Rexxie gave me the beat, and I brought zanku in)” – a true representation of Zlatan’s contribution, with zanku, in bringing about the end of the reign of shaku-shaku.

The dance consists of rhythmic stamping of feet to the heavy percussion, combined with a series of elaborate footwork, punctuated by a jump kick in the air, sometimes as high as head level; some more exuberant dancers throw in a roundhouse kick for effect. These moves are a response to the recurring chant of “gbe body e (lift your body)” throughout the song. There’s a fitting tribute to a Tunde Kelani classic, the 1999 film, Saworoide, when the name of one of the characters, a dancer called Aresejabata (played by a young Kunle Afolayan), is mentioned repeatedly in the chorus, as a praise name for the dancers of zanku.

5. Shoki

Olamide, the YBNL Nation boss, discovered Lil Kesh in 2014 after hearing the single, Lyrically. He signed him and in that same year, the young rapper released the song Shoki which took the entire country by storm. Its dance of the same name resembles martial arts moves, where the dancer stretches out their hand with palm facing up, and turns the palm down, while covering one eye with the other palm, with movements from the shoulders and waist.

The song became such a hit that a remix had to be made which featured Davido and Olamide, who were already superstars in the game. As a sign of the dance crossing genres into fuji spaces, Pasuma, a leading fuji artiste, appeared in the music video of this remix, and the dance was done in fuji and juju videos at the time.

Riding on the wave of the widespread popularity of the song and dance, Orezi made his own version, with the same title and dance, and even went further to do Hausa and French remixes of the song. Interestingly, Orezi’s version enjoyed just as much attention as Lil Kesh’s original. The people couldn’t get enough of this song and dance … until the next year when another song and dance, Olamide’s Bobo, came and took over.

Dance has proven to be a very essential part of our cultural identity as Africans, more than the mere corporeal enjoyment of it; just as the name of a Nigerian dance group popular in the early to mid-noughties says: “dance na the main thing”.

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