UGONWA OBIAYO: MY LAW STUDY SUFFERED BECAUSE OF DANCE
Trained as a mass communicator and lawyer, Ugonwa Obiayo found her passion as a dancer. The entertainment lawyer who recently was elected as Chairman, Lagos State Guild of Nigerian Dancers, in this interview with JOE AGBRO JR, talks about her dance journey and what she hopes to achieve during her term. Excerpts
OW did a lawyer become a dancer?
First, I was dancer before I became a lawyer. I started dancing while I was doing my OND in IMT (Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu) under the watchful eye of Klint Da Drunk. His name is Afamefuna Igwemba and through the club he formed at the time, I became a dancer and used that means to support my siblings through school too while waiting for pocket money from daddy and mummy before I went into ESUT, Enugu State University of Science and Technology for Law.
That was how a dancer became a lawyer. And then when I graduated, went to Law school. The law kind of suffered along the way because for me, that creativity thing is life and I needed to explore myself in depth. So, I groomed myself as an artiste growing through the dance classes. I started with hip hop, then traditional dance, came to Lagos, worked with Ijodee on contemporary dance, worked with Society For Performing Arts in Nigeria (SPAN), Spirit of David (SOD), others while at the same time still trying to hone my skills as a lawyer.
What motivated you to go into dancing?
What motivated me was the freedom that comes with dancing. It helps me relieve my mind. I find solace in dancing. I could tell a story with dance. And it makes people happy. And when I was discovered in those days through Klint, was when Missy Elliot used to reign. The name ‘Missy’, I was baptised with that name because her music, ‘I can’t stand the rain’ was one of the song I used to perform with. And when I dance, people love me. I’ve even performed for the president’s wife, Mrs Stella Obasanjo. And it was able to take me far and wide.
So, what’s your favourite style of dance?
That’s quite a tricky question. I love traditional dances. I’m very versatile, yes, but with the traditional dances, it expresses who we really are as Nigerians. In Enugu State alone, there are so many dance styles of Igbo dances, not to talk of the over 250 (ethnic groups). And they are wonderful dances, colourful, the interpretation of movement, the instrumentation, the beats. You need to listen to the Ikorodo beats from Nsukka. Ikorodo is a maiden dance.
There’s Nkwa Umuagbogho from Ebonyi State, Achikolo from Enugu State. I had to do all these dances as a young girl. And most of them are not being practised today, except you go to the villages. But they freed my soul. Apart from the hip hop and contemporary which I did not decry, traditional dances are tops.
But contemporary dance has become the glamour side of dance in Nigeria, beating traditional dance to the background. How do you see this development?
Well, contemporary dance is a genre on its own, same as traditional. But as a blend, they can both work together to fit into a beautiful dance. There is no one that is superseding the other. The only difference is how they are projected because if we promote our traditional dances as much as the contemporary dances are being promoted, they would still be at par.
However, you have different markets appreciating different styles. But the traditional dances have been watered down for now because there have been not much push to get them out there. We do African contemporary as they call it, Western contemporary dance. It’s all about interpretation now. It’s not been explored. So, we need to explore our traditional dances to get to that level where contemporary dance, hip hop, salsa and other styles are being celebrated today.
Artistes including dancers in Nigeria have been seen to be ‘never-do-wells.’ How would you react to that?
In as much as we would like to embrace everybody coming into the industry, you also have to embrace the fact that there is a level of professionalism that should be attached to what you do with dance. However, looking yourself as a professional has to come from within first. Until we start to see ourselves as professional, the world will continue to see us as unprofessional. The industry is a professional industry and that is what we are looking at fixing.
Are you still practicing law or have you relegated it for dance?
I’ve been called to Bar which automatically makes me a lawyer. Practice depends on how you say it. Like right now, I have my certificate so, anybody coming to me would still have a viable lawyer to deal with. So that I don’t go to court does not make me less of a lawyer. I still listen to briefs. I have clients that I handle one or two matters for, be it contracts, be it administrative matters.
How has combining dance and law practice been?
It’s been wonderful. First and foremost, I learnt the act of administration in dance and my legal training has also helped imbibe the rules and regulation of administration. Keeping documents, keeping records in my dance act.
So, both are intertwined. And even registration of companies and stuff like that. It has been very smooth and easy. Right now, colleagues from the dance industry have started calling with regards to creating documents for them, with regards to helping them register one or two documents, their companies, their business names and even landlord/tenant situation. So, yes I am practicing.
You recently were elected as chairman of the Lagos State chapter of the Guild of Nigerian Dancers. What motivated you to vie for that position?
I served the Guild (as secretary) about five years ago, 2010 to 2012 dispensation under the chairmanship of Isioma Williams. I remember he (Isioma Williams) asked me then, ‘madam, as the secretary then, would you like to come in as the chairman in the second dispensation.’
And I told him then I wasn’t ready for the industry and the industry wasn’t ready for me. I still needed to go and groom myself in certain things. The motivation now is trying to restructure the industry, create systems that will work for the dancers and the dance business and dance practitioners as a whole.
What are the missing structures in the dance business?
We lack structures, a system that will go in line with the practice of dance. How should we practice dance in Nigeria? Not copying from any other country. This is Nigeria. This is Lagos. How would it favour us in order to say we’re practicing dance, these are the rules and regulations with regard to the practice of dance in Lagos State and probably Nigeria as a whole.
The Ambode administration now is using the arts as part of its machinery. The visual artists are there, the other kinds of art genres are there. Why is dance industry not there? Because we do not have a proper system that will align us. A lot of organisations don’t know us. They just know that there are dancers in Lagos.
Compared to the western world, how would you describe level of dance in the country?
Well, the level of dance in Nigeria has really grown tremendously. We see their dances as unique. They see ours as unique. We have been able to generate different styles of dances which they are also copying today. So, yes, as a platform, we are at par with them. But we could actually be better in our genre that can be marketable.
Are you single or married?
I am very happily married.
The whole members of the Guild right now are my children but not from biological yet.
Does dance in anyway impede on your marriage?
No, I have the most wonderful man. God personally selected him because of what I am. He’s in the arts too. Even if I had married a doctor, he would be in love with the arts and push me. So, my husband believes in what I do and he is solidly behind me.
Dance is very physical, how do you relax?
I relax by doing yoga and I do stretch exercises too. And I listen to music. I watch movies a lot as much as I can. And then another part is playing with the kids I work with from time to time. I love being surrounded by them. They just make you relax.
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