Iwar with a dancing mask

In commemoration of International Dance Day, Solomon Elusoji visited the National Theatre, Iganmu, and spoke to a lifelong dance enthusiast about his passion 

On a recent morning at the Artiste Village inside the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, a group of young men and women sat around plastic tables and chairs under a cool spot, trading conversations. Among them was Benjamin Iwar, a lifelong dancer who had started moving his body to the rhythm of time and space since he was nine.

Iwar hails from Benue  State, where he also had his formative years. His interest in dance was piqued by watching his mother – who used to head their local community’s traditional dance group – and his brother, who was steeped into break dance, influenced by hip hop culture.

However, when Iwar made his intention of becoming a professional dancer to his family, they all discouraged him from pursuing the idea. “The perception of being a dancer in Nigeria is a tough one; you have to pass through tough times because they don’t recognise the profession in Nigeria; and once you want to be part of  that profession, your family will want to discourage you,” Iwar says. “Mine said it’s a wayward profession and there’s nothing to gain in it. But, as for me, watching my mother and brother do it for such a long time already made dance a part of me.”

Iwar stuck with his dream, stubbornly insisting that dance was his way. This led to his parents refusing to pay his school fees when he was in J.S.S 3. But he was able to finish from Government Day Secondary School, Makurdi, self-funding himself through his art.

“I used to follow a group who move from house to house playing cartons and jerry-cans and I would accompany them, dancing,” he says. One of his earliest memories of such dances was when they performed the Mammy Water dance, an elaborate performance which demanded that Iwar dress like a lady and mimic mermaid movements. “It was very beautiful and colourful,” he recalls.

After secondary school, Iwar joined the Benue State Council for Arts and Culture (BSCAC) in 1997. While there, he started a small dance group, Afrique Theatre Dance Troupe. When the BSCAC, in 2001, wanted to send a dancer to represent Benue in the National Troupe of Nigeria, Iwar was chosen. He served there for two years, before getting a role to work for a dance company in France.

Today, Iwar’s decision appears to have paid off. Dancing has taken him across the world, from France to Columbia, to Brazil, to Britain. And most importantly, it pays his bills.

“Of course it is hard to survive as a dancer in this country because the government does not support the arts,” Iwar tells THISDAY. “Nobody believes in you because they feel you don’t know what you are doing, so you have to hustle it out by yourself. But dance has given me so much more in return that I believe all the sacrifices were worth it. Dance frees the soul. It is a message, the movement of the body in time and space.”

Dancing in Nigeria

The history of dance in Nigeria is no doubt a colourful one. With hundreds of tribes and their unique dancing traditions, few nations can boast of such plethora of diversity. According to Wikpedia, these dances “teach social patterns and values and help people work, mature, praise or criticise members of the community while celebrating festivals and funerals, competing, reciting history, proverbs and poetry; and to encounter gods.” They are “largely participatory, with spectators being part of the performance. With the exception of some spiritual, religious or initiation dances, there are traditionally no barriers between dancers and onlookers. Even ritual dances often have a time when spectators participate.”

However, these rich cultural tools have not been maximally exploited in the modern world. On its part, the government is lackadaisical and most dancing activities are driven through private pockets and foreign governments. “The people who support dance in Nigeria are foreign agencies like the French Cultural Institute, the Goethe Institute and the British Council,” Iwar says.

There is a Dance Guild of Nigeria, but the impact of its management is questionable. For example, its website (danceguildnigeria.com) is stocked with outdated content and reflects the shoddy state of cultural structure in the country.

“They obviously need to do more,” Iwar said. “Abroad, it is organisations like these that spur dance festivals and export dance troupes to showcase a nation’s abundant and virile cultural base.”

The day of dance

Tomorrow, April 29, millions across the world will celebrate International Dance Day. It was introduced in 1982 by the International Dance Council, a UNESCO partner non-profit and has been celebrated annually ever since. For this year’s edition, the message was written by Trisha Brown, an American choreographer and dancer, and one of the founders of the Judson Dance Theatre and the postmodern dance movement.

Unfortunately, Brown passed away on March 18. But her message note is worth reproducing here: “I became a dancer because of my desire to fly. The transcendence of gravity was always something that moved me. There is no secret meaning in my dances. They are a spiritual exercise in a physical form.

“Dance communicates and expands the universal language of communication, giving birth to joy, beauty and the advancement of human knowledge. Dance is about creativity…again and again…in the thinking, in the making, in the doing, and in the performing. Our bodies are a tool for expression and not a medium for representation. This notion liberates our creativity, which is the essential lesson and gift of art-making.

“The life of an artist does not end with age, as some critics believe. Dance is made of people, people and ideas. As an audience, you can take the creative impulse home with you and apply it to your daily life.”

To celebrate the Dance Day, Iwar and his friends at the Artist Village organised a dance workshop yesterday at the Just-Dance Studio. “Dancing for me is everything,” he says, “I’ll dance till I die.”