Making Soweto Children Dance the Nigerian Way


Yinka Olatunbosun

The two-week long performance of Kakadu the Musical in Johannesburg was punctuated with training workshop at select locations in South Africa. One of them was held at Zola Higher Primary School in Soweto with the choreographer of the Nigerian musical, Femi Olufowobi taking charge of the dance session of the workshop.

The children were mostly pre-teens. Clad in school uniform, they were eager to receive the Kakadu team from Nigeria as their growing number during the workshop showed. After a brief introduction by the Executive Producer, Uche Nwokedi SAN, the music director of the play, Ben Ogbeiwi took the children through a few vocal training exercises before teaching them a few soundtracks from the musical. Next, the Director, Kanayo Omo began a children theatre session to give the children an understanding of what the musical was about. Although many of the children were yet to watch Kakadu, they were familiar with the musical instruments that the Kakadu team brought with them.

One of the intriguing moments of the session was when the choreographer, Olufowobi taught the children the dance steps of the ’60s. Moving from twist to limbo, the children were made to reenact some of the scenes in Kakadu. In addition, popular dance steps in Nigeria were recreated. The young Soweto children danced Shoki, Azonto and were taught to “dab”. Initially, it seemed difficult for them to get into the Nigerian groove but a few of them got it right.
Olufowobi, who had been the official choreographer for Kakadu since inception reflected on how the musical had metamorphosed into a cultural exchange tool for Nigeria and South Africa. In 1977, when the National Theatre was officially launched, the South African music group, Ipi Tombi, opened up the new performance stage in Lagos. Hence, the cultural pact that the two country has goes a long way in history.

The choreographer, who often works quietly described the South African experience as a unique one since the host country has very rich pop culture.

“It is a new experience for me,” he admitted. “To come here from Nigeria has been quite challenging in terms of the work that we have to put into the musical. You know that South Africa is a country that is well blessed with music and dance, so definitely wouldn’t want to do anything that would bring us down. We are determined to take Kakadu to the next level. It has been so great coming here and performing at Joburg theatre- I must confess I have been out of the country on several occasions but this theatre is quite different with its flight system and wagons. That changed the choreography pattern a little.”

For years, Kakadu cast and crew had been accustomed to a regular stage pattern with blackouts and lights signaling scene changes. Olufowobi explained how the Joburg Theatre facility affected the choreographed movements in the play.

“What we have been working with in the past years have been the normal proscenium stages but when we got here, I had to adapt the dance steps to suit the incoming of the wagons. We cannot have someone fall off the stage so I had to adjust to it. I had to tell my dancers to adjust their movement to the stage craft. They had to take certain dances off because they were not suitable for the stage.”
The Health and Safety Drills formed the essential part of the production. The theatre had fire extinguishers in strategic locations and more importantly, the actors are trained on safety precautions.

The moment that brought goose-pimples to us at the workshop was when the Soweto children were invited to sing a South African folksong for their Nigerian visitors. First, there was silence- the children were unsure of what to sing. Then a reverberating voice shot through from the gathering. It was that a young girl in high-heels. The call and response harmony was good food for the ears. Apparently, the ability to sing resides in the DNA of these Soweto children. After capturing the moment on cameras, the Kakadu team applauded.

Though the workshop session lasted just about an hour, the memory of the visit of the Kakadu team is expected to last a lifetime in the hearts of these young ones.