Growing up, 24-year-old Emmanuel Ugochukwu, like every other child, had great dreams. One of his dreams was to become either a medical doctor or a Marine Engineer. But those massive dreams came crushing down when his father suddenly died. Everything changed. In a bid to make ends meet and also to assist his poor mother, Ugochukwu had to dance in his locality for a living. But little did he know that dance was another pathway to his greatness until he came in contact with the Society for Performing Arts of Nigeria. Now a performing artiste, artistic model and dancer, Ugochukwu, who through his expertise acquired at SPAN, got himself a Yemi AD’s scholarship for a three-year course in Prague, Czech Republic, has not only revolutionised his mindset but has also carved a niche for himself in the performing art industry. As the indigene of Achi, a town located in Orji River Local Government Area of Enugu State, is set to jet-off to Czech Republic for his scholarship programme, he tells MARY NNAH that dance for him goes beyond entertainment
Let’s talk about your recent scholarship. How did it happen?
It happened in April this year. I attended a programme tagged, ‘Meet the Icons’, which featured Czech-based Nigerian artiste, Yemi Akinyemi Dele, popularly known as Yemi AD. He came to Nigeria where he offered the opportunity for scholarship to dancers. I took interest and applied for it. I went through the processes of tests, sending video’s and pictures, which led me to the final process and eventually I got the three-year scholarship to study in Prague, Czech Republic. The scholarship which is based on individual’s performances was for dance and coding.
How did you feel when you were told you won the scholarship?
I was so excited because it has always been my dream to go back to school fully. And I owe it to Society for Performing Arts of Nigeria (SPAN) If I haven’t gotten on the platform in 2014, I don’t think I would have been where I am today. SPAN taught me how to hold on to my dreams. So, any day any time, I represent SPAN.
Before entering the performing art scene, what was life like?
I’m from Achi in Orji River Local Government Area of Enugu State but I was born in Sapele, Delta State. After a while, I moved to Benin and then to Lagos State. I used to be an obedient child, still am. I used to do my own thing, though being guided by my parents until life showed itself in another form, so I had to get out from my comfort zone and that was when I found out that performing art is for me. Today, I am a performing artiste; bit by bit, I am into artistic modelling and I dance also. Apart from that, I do a bit of business in order to support myself. I have been in the performing art industry for seven years.
At what stage did you pick up interest in dancing?
At 17 years of age and by then I was rounding off with my secondary school education. I remember that before my father died, I was always a very lively person, anytime I hear a song I will dance to it. I derived joy when I see people smile when I danced. But when my father died and I saw the other side of life, in that people I trusted so much turned me down, I withdrew into myself and became introverted. I was in that state for a long time. Even though I still had interest in music, I didn’t dance physically but danced in my mind. It was so bad that most times it came with emotions and sadness. I just kept wondering; is this how the world is and all that? That’s why these days; I draw so much passion from my major dance style – the contemporary dance and modern jazz because that is where I’m able to express myself fully. So, when a friend, Astropex Jude Ehimhem introduced me to the western dance, I said with this I can express myself properly without even having to tell anyone anything. I’m the kind of person that I find it hard to go to people and tell them my problems but when you see me dance you would perceive at that moment that something is going on in my mind. That is the best way I could communicate. Now, I have taken dance so personal that if you call me to present something for you; it does not come as a rush. I like making it personal; trying hard to put my life experience into it or probably what people are going through and making it more creative and enjoyable for the audience. Dance for me, is deep! It is spiritual.
So, how has the journey been?
It hasn’t been easy. It has been crazy! It has been a mix of everything – the good, the bad and the ugly. There were moments I regretted, moments I loved and moments I cherished. All the same, I would say it is all worth it because it all brought me to where I am today. The challenges were first the struggles as a dancer; then in Nigeria the respect being accorded dancers now, was not there because they tagged us as unprofessional, street kids and people were always like, let’s just call them and let them take the space and entertain and that was all. But I got to realise along the line that performing arts is not just entertainment. It is art showcased in various forms.
Another challenge was a situation where I took part in carnivals where I had to dance on the streets for a very long distance like from the beginning of Third Mainland Bridge to the end of the bridge just for N5, 000. So, there were lots of hard work at the beginning, all these I had to do in order to become as professional as I am today. It was so crazy that there were times I had injuries and could not dance for days and yet I kept pushing and pushing. It even got to a point when my mom said I had to stop dancing for the sake of my health. But I persisted and today, it is paying off.
When would you describe as the most memorable period in your career?
The most exciting moment I would say was when I began doing the contemporary dance. I started out when I was in Benin, before then, dance for me was just the movement of the body just to make me happy. I was dancing for fun and entertainment until Astropex Jude Ehimhem, who was my coach and still my coach and mentor, introduced me to a new form of dance, the western style of dance, which is more professional. That was when it became very exciting for me. Before then, I used to do all kinds of African dances till I was introduced to the western dance style; it got my interest, passion and time. That was memorable for me.
How then did you come in contact with SPAN, which in a way is the organisation that has projected you globally?
I came in contact with SPAN between 2014 and 2015. At that time, a Glo dance competition called “Dance with Peter” was happening. The audition took place in Benin and I took part in the audition where I met someone that came from SPAN and he said to me that he liked the way I moved my body and would want me to try out SPAN in training myself further. And I said fine. I also liked the way he moved. I was really amazed and I felt that if someone like him was this good and had got the training from SPAN, I really needed to give it a trial and that was how I started associating with SPAN. So, when SPAN held its 2015 edition of SPANFEST and graduation in Lagos, I decided to attend. I signed up for their workshop and was given the opportunity to perform during the 2015 graduation ceremony.
How has your stay in SPAN impacted on your career as a dancer?
It has impacted on my life immensely. It has pushed me to the extent that I have been able to find what I love and go all out for it at SPAN, they give ideas of different dance styles and you are left to make a choice of what kind of dance you really want to focus on and perfect your skills in, which I did. My major is contemporary jazz but here they also teach hip-hop, African dance and all that. Yes, at first, I felt uncomfortable doing those dance steps I was taught at SPAN but I pushed on and was able to perfect my skills. And also, through SPAN, I have come to realise that I can easily present myself as a total package in the industry, whereby if you book for a job, I know that I have to place value on my time, efforts, skill and knowledge unlike when I used to dance on the streets and would accept whatever amount given to me. Now, I have realised that if I should put more time and effort in learning this professionally, I expect clients to also place value on me and pay more money in return.
Again, SPAN is not just about performing art, the fact that the founder of SPAN, Mrs. Sarah Boulos, runs it with the vision of God, whereby its allows you to be disciplined inside and just allow God to move. It is not about you being professional or good, it all boils down to your character and personality, all of which make you as an artiste more beautiful. It is not just being good at what you do but your content and personality also portray who you are.
You speak so well. What is your educational background?
I only managed to finish secondary school; I didn’t go to the university. It was really hard because I lost my father at the age of 14 and by then I was entering into SSS1 and so from there, it was a struggle for me with school because I had only my mother taking care of all of us and we all were in school then. After dad died, school was a struggle, so I changed schools a lot because I was having financial issues. I went to four secondary schools before I eventual finished in 2012 from Paragon Comprehensive College, Benin City Edo State. I am this kind of person that loves my family so much, so I had to sacrifice my education for others. Although I tried getting admission into the university but it was as if it wasn’t for me; it was not just working. I had to let it be. And at a point I was thinking that life was against me, that was when God brought in dance career for me and from there I took it up and I decided to start dancing as a means of survival. Ever since, my family have been very supportive.
What were your childhood dreams?
When dad was still alive, I used to dream of becoming a doctor or a Marine Engineer; I dreamt of how I would grow up get married and give my parents grandchildren but dad passed away and everything changed. Those dreams died with him. Thankfully to the friend who introduced me to the new form of dance and to SPAN, where I was groomed.
What vision do you have for yourself in few years to come?
There is this promise I made to my mom. I told her that at the age of 26 I would know around the world; and by then I would be one of the best performing artistes in the world. And she has been reminding me of that and I keep telling her I will fulfil my promise to her. I see that coming to pass, so in the next five years from now, I want to see myself up there. I talk to people through dance not just in the physically way but spiritual because I am a Christian. So, I have always told God that the best way for me to evangelise is through dance. I see myself impacting on people spiritually through dance in few years from now.
It would be a situation when people call on me, the crowd would gather not because I am able to entertain them but because I am able to impact on their lives, connect to them, letting them know that life is beyond what they see with their mere eyes. Dance goes beyond dancing in the physical. It all boils down to the working of your mind. As an artiste, it is not just what you bring physically; whatever you bring out physically comes from the mind and it depends on how well you have trained that mind on what you want to achieve. For me, your mind needs to be powerful enough for you to magnet what you want.
So, would you say dancing as a career pays off?
Yes, dancing as a career pays off for me. It all depends on how you want it to be for you. Dance as a career has different opportunities – the good and the bad; that is just the truth. I know of some good dancers that tow the wrong path. So, it depends on how you want it. Is it for the fame or for the money?
How would you determine if you are towing the right path as a dancer?
It all depends because in this life, we are all called for a reason. So, most time I do not blame people when I find out what they dance for. Some may just want to dance with popular musicians just for the fame without earning money. But I am not that kind of artiste who looks forward to dancing with popular musicians to get fame because I know what I want to achieve with my dance. Dancing for popular artistes will give you the popularity but does it pay you financially? So, some dancers ignore that fact or they just devalue themselves and accept any fee that comes to them. I feel that when you take dance as a career, it should also represent what other careers are. Like when you say I am a doctor and people respect you for that, when you also say I am a dancer, people should also respect you. Dance is also like a lifestyle, and as a dancer, your number one tool is your body and how you package yourself physically and mentally determine what you get in return. However, I do not judge those who go for less but for me, I see dance beyond being just fun and entertainment.
Considering where you are coming from and what you have become today, what is your advice to young people?
I would say that we all want different things. It is how we go about them that matters. We can’t keep blaming our background, the society or government for wherever we find ourselves now. We should ask ourselves what we want to make of life and then work towards it. It is a decision of the mind. And then the people you associate with are very important.
You look attractive, so how do you cope with distractions from ladies?
I try to manage well by smiling and expressing gratitude for compliments and not taking advantage of any given situation.