All she ever wanted to do was dance. And she deliberated the way she navigated her path to hug her dream. However, the spanner was thrown into the works of Lovette Otegbola at the moment when fame beckoned. Spoilsports emerged, particularly in the media to mess up her celebration. Vanessa Obioha reports on Otegbola’s resilience and how she fought her way back on the spotlight

The day had begun with a golden glow. There was no hint of dark clouds in the clear blue sky. For Lovette Otegbola who was planning a party, it was a good sign. It was her son’s birthday. Invitations had been sent to friends and loved ones and her children couldn’t hide their ecstasy watching their mother set up the decor for the party. They hoped around her as she meandered from the kitchen to the make-shift birthday hall where cards, balloons, tables, chairs and other artworks were in a perfect state of flurry. A bouncing castle was erected outside for the children.

Like a thief in the night, the dark clouds crept into the clear blue sky, chasing away the bright sun. Within minutes, the sky unleashed its fury with a deluge of rain. But she refused to let the weather dampen her mood. She went about the preparations as if the sun was still shining brightly.

This reporter arrived in the rain. Offering words of understanding, she led her to the living room upstairs where her children were watching TV. She pleaded with them to excuse her for a minute.

Caught between phone calls, children and loved ones who came to assist her, it was difficult to have her full attention. One minute she was telling a parent on the phone: “I know it’s raining…yes…they can come…we are almost done…it’s just for two hours.” The next minute, she was rushing out of the room to give instructions to the caterers.

Just when she thought she could have a respite, her former employer and close friend, Sarah Boulos of the Society for Performing Arts in Nigeria, SPAN, and her little daughter arrived. One could tell from the hugs and screams that they share a special friendship. Introductions were made and the celebrant waltzed in to greet his godmother. Boulos engaged the young lad in a little chat about his academics, friends and Jesus. Again, Otegbola left to attend to another need. During her long absence, her mother-in-law arrived. We got talking and her admiration for Otegbola was very evident.

“When my son first introduced her to me, I was afraid because she was too skinny. But I have come to realise that that is her beauty. I wouldn’t have wanted another daughter-in-law. She is an amazing woman.”
Finally, Otegbola returned and demanding to be left alone, she took me to her children’s neatly-tidied room.

She apologised again as we sat on one of the beds. She admitted that scheduling the interview was a bit tasking due to her busy schedule. In fact, she planned two hours for the party.
“It’s a whirlwind for me sometimes. I’m a mother, entrepreneur, an educator. My mornings are usually dedicated to my children. I drop them at school and make sure everything is going on well.

Then I go about my daily work which starts by 10 O’clock in the morning. I try hard not to exceed 3:00pm. If I have any other thing in-between or later, I make sure I come back to pick my children from school, spend some time with them, seeing to their homework and other chores. I may have two or three hours for any other businesses. I try to structure my life like that so I can have time for them.

“This period is really busy. I haven’t been so much around because of Project Fame. It’s harder because I’m taking the schedule from now till late in the evening. Sometimes I pull them along so that they can experience mummy’s whole day and as well, have my eyes on them. I always say to myself, I don’t want anything to take away the moment I have with my children. I don’t want to waste it because the truth is we never get it back.”

Her bustling lifestyle started few years ago when she decided to pursue her dream to own a dance company. Being born to parents who are avid dancers, it was only a matter of time before the trait in her DNA began to manifest. As a child, she was the life of every party she attended. Till date, she is fondly remembered for her dance moves. She confessed that the late pop legend, Michael Jackson, was her idol and she had fantasies and dreams to dance like him and meet him before his untimely death in 2009. Sadly, the year of his death coincided with the birth of her son.

With her keen interest in dance, Otegbola needed no clairvoyant to tell her that dance was her true calling. Right from her days in the University of Ibadan where she studied Archaeology and Anthropology, she made up her mind to pursue dance as a profession.

“While I was in school, 200 level, I just had the feeling that I’m going into dance after graduation. I was on my way to class one day when it just came to me that I’m going to be a dancer and also own a dance company. When I came out of school, for a while I wondered what to do. I told my father about it. He told me to get an administrative experience so I got a job in an office. At that time, I didn’t think I needed the experience. I just wanted to be on stage and dance.”

Nevertheless, she worked in an office for a year after which she dumped her certificate and pursued her career with all doggedness. She became a member of the dance group Spirit of David and when an opportunity came to work in SPAN in 2004, she grabbed it with both hands. Although, she felt she had little experience, her appointment as an assistant to Boulos gave her the most valuable knowledge she needed in her career.

“I started working there as a full-time assistant to Boulos. I was present in all her classes. I started learning ballet and how to teach. The first thing I learnt was how to teach. I was with her daily. She ensured that I passed through the different departments. It was an awesome experience for me.”

Working in SPAN availed her the opportunity to have a vast knowledge of the art. From the different styles and their evolution to the technicalities involved.

“The technicalities of dance depends on the dance style. If you are doing an Afrobeat, the skills you require are speed, passion, strength and a lot of our African based dance is concentrated on the lower part of the body, particularly the waist. The upper part is not really doing anything. But when it comes to foreign dance: ballet, modern jazz, Latin dance, you have to know the basics, even if you have studied it.”

She added that dance requires a lot of time and dedication, that there are no shortcuts in dance. You have to go the whole mile. “If a particular dance style will take 150 hours of training, you have to complete it. Most people stop half-way and assume they know it all. No, that won’t work. A good eye will always fish you out. The good thing is that Nigerians are getting enlightened. I know parents who will bring their children to me because they know that my training is superb not because they watched a video. What you get in the classroom is really different from what you get in the video.”

For Otegbola, the importance of dance in the entertainment industry cannot be overlooked. Apart from it being a form of expression, it can generate revenue for the entertainment industry.
“Dance allows one to express oneself. A sense of unity is found within the dance. Dance can generate revenue in the entertainment industry as well as in tourism. For example, we can organise dance shows and concerts, dance education workshops and dance festivals, cultural tours, etc.”

She buttressed the point with the growing global recognition of Afrobeat.
“Nigeria is so rich in dance. I have not catalogued Nigerian dance styles but at least, I know there are about 30 dance styles peculiar to us. Look at where Afrobeat is now. It picks from every style. One thing I have seen for sure on the internet in most recent times is a lot of foreigners dancing to Afrobeat. They are learning how to dance Afrobeat. For me, this is good.

If I’m an Afrobeat dancer, I can make money from it. I can take my culture and export it. The only thing I wish is for us to have big dance festivals that can bring influx of dancers from outside the country to learn from us. Or we export our people. The foreign exchange is good, it’s just that we only think that it’s just dance.”

Other indigenous dance styles like the Atilogu and Bata, she argued, are yet to enjoy such prominence because “our cultural values and ways are easily fading with each passing generation. Not because it’s not interesting but it’s not as accessible as Afro pop where these days everyone is uploading videos of their interpretation of our cool Naija music. Go online, you don’t see our cultural dances uploaded and taught for people to follow easily. Traditional dancers have not embraced that part of the world revolution.”

She further highlighted some of the benefits of dance which include physical/mental refreshment and relaxation, cultural values, laughter and fun as a form of entertainment, aesthetic for stage and music videos as well as a form of exercise.

Frowning on the myth about dance being gender based, she argued that dancers should not be disregarded. This crusade is being led by the Dance Guild of Nigeria where she was recently appointed secretary for the Lagos state chapter.

“In Nigeria today, dance is not making it because a lot of people think dance is just a skill, God’s gift to you. But for people who have full training, who put in sweat and blood to put themselves out there, they need to make that money. That’s why a lot of dancers are beginning to speak up: Respect my profession. If you are a doctor, I’m a dancer so respect my profession.

Don’t offer me peanuts for my services.”
Speaking on the perception of some dance moves as immoral by the public, she argued that if it wasn’t selling, there would be no market for it.

“I’m not justifying it. I’m not the kind of person that will dress half-naked to dance. But there are people who pay for these things, they like it, and people perform it because there’s a market for it. Do you know to be a pole dancer is one of the hardest thing? It’s even worse than going to a ballet school. It’s painful. People break their necks for things like that. There is a market for it that’s why it exists.”

After eight years of working at SPAN, it was time for her to move on. By then she was married and shared her vision to own a dance company with her husband. He constantly reminded her as she progressed in her career, so when she left SPAN, she decided to open a dance company. She initially named it BITS (Bringing it Totally Special) but her mother asked her to add Lovette to it. Today, Lovette BITS is three years old and has over nine teachers attending to the teeming population of children and adults.

As a professional, Otegbola has worked with big brands like Guinness and Maltina. However, her biggest platform so far came with her appointment as the new choreographer in the MTN Project Fame Academy.

On one Sunday evening, as she drove home from a performance for MSJ event, she got a BBM request from someone and out of politeness, accepted. Her phone pinged and it was a desperate message from the new contact requesting for her phone number to call her. She obliged her and got a call from the lady who introduced herself as Bukola from Ultima Studios. She told her she’s been trying to reach her all day and that they are shopping for a new choreographer for MTN Project Fame Season 8 and her boss would like to have a chat with her. Tired, she told her to call back few minutes later when she would be home.

“It didn’t click that instant. My husband was driving me and he inquired who the caller was so I casually told him that it was some people like that, looking for a new choreographer. Immediately I got home, my phone rang again and the caller introduced herself as Uzo from Ultima Studios. She repeated what Bukola told me and asked me to come for an audition on Tuesday. I had less than two days to put something together.

I asked for the address and exactly what they wanted me to do. She told me to just come and do one or two dance moves and I will be asked questions as well, like in an interview. I agreed and hung up the phone. Then I told my husband and he was like ‘is that not what Kaffy does?’ I picked up my phone and immediately dialled Kaffy. I asked her what’s going on and she said she’s been trying to reach me all day to tell me to expect a call from Ultima. She said they asked her to write a list of persons whom she thought could take over from her and she penned down my name.”

By the time she got to the venue on Tuesday, she was surprised to see that four other persons who were also asked to write a list had put down her name. Due to the short notice, Otegbola had little time for preparation. She dragged her choreography assistant Bobby Francis Emeka to perform a jive and contemporary piece which they had performed at the MSJ event, then topped it with a solo performance.

For the four days she waited to hear the verdict of her performance, Otegbola was antsy. On many occasions, she was tempted to dial the number but she managed to get rid of anxiety by concentrating on a school she was working with at the moment. This was in first week of last July.

The call finally came through while she was in a class. Her heart began to race wildly as she left the classroom and asked someone to stand in for her.
With shaky hands, she pressed the answer button on her phone and placed the phone on her ears.
“Hello” she said nervously.

The caller reintroduced herself but patience was not a strong virtue for her at that moment. She politely told the caller she knew who she was.
“We would like to know if you don’t mind joining the team for MTN Project Fame season 8.”
Silence. Then a loud scream that got most of the teachers rushing towards her. She apologised and returned to her phone conversation. Every other thing went so fast. The next minute she was on the phone with Kaffy.

“I got the slot girlfriend!”
Another scream ensued, this time from Kaffy.
“I’m so happy for you. I knew you were going to get it. Although, I suggested other people, but I really prayed you would clinch the slot,” said Kaffy excitedly.
Interestingly, the new deal would be a mixed blessing for Otegbola as Nigerians didn’t embrace her with the same fervour she embraced the job.

“It was very ugly. I think that was one of the lowest point in my life. Honestly, I didn’t know the media would swallow me. They didn’t like my style. I wish people will know that people are different. The way I raise my child is different from the way another raises her child. I have my own peculiar style of the way I teach and they were not used to that. There were times I got terrible messages on my Facebook and Instagram. Some were very nasty. They called me a fool, that I don’t know what I was doing, that they don’t like me. I braved the show but I was really depressed. But the contestants, Uncle Ben, Mummy J, Ms Ige, Mrs Uzo Sanwo, gave me an incredible support and courage.

There were days I couldn’t go on, but they were there for me. They urged me to show up because it’s work. It was tough but I pulled through and then I think a few people began to believe in me. The greatest gift for me is that MTN Project Fame as a brand still put their trust in me to finish the season. If you thought someone was whack at their job, trust me you will fire them in a heartbeat. But they believed in me.”
Indeed they believed in her by renewing her contract. Who knows, she may return next year.