Contemporary Nigerian dances are as diversified as the culture from which they emerge. This project is an exploration of the use of semiotics in contemporary Nigerian dance. Contemporary Nigerian dance is deeply rooted in the semiology of images because it is not merely an agglutination of symbols, but symbols contained in the language content of any given society. The place of semiotics in this instance dance, becomes an expression of linguistic pattern of a choreographed contemporary Nigerian dance. Semiotics interpretation is a concept that would help in the understanding of meaning-making inherent in activity. Semiotics involves the interpretation of signs, a study of how meaning is derived from both simple and complex knowledge of images, sounds, words gestures and objects. “The place of semiotics in contemporary Nigerian Dance” is thus, aimed at educating choreographers and dance scholars on how semiotics can aid the understanding of a dance through the appropriate channel of interpretation. It is a conscious call to the realization of the role of semiotics in understanding life, where culture codes form a basis of communication. This project has been able to establish an understanding of the way semiotics operates as an interpretive connecting rod between thought, ideas and impressions.


1.1      Introduction and Background to the Study
Dance is an ageless art from the history of creation. Dance made its debut into the theatre as embellishment for formal drama, opera and musicals. Dance is a primordial art which was used in rituals, hunting, communication, mock-fight, war, festival and initiation. According to Sarrel. “The dance of primitive societies is always serious because it is religious in a self expressive and communication sense” (7).

In every work of art, especially, dance, what makes it more effective is its ability to follow a particular rhythm. So the rhythmic nature of African dance or any other culture is ever-green in the minds of its people. Dance in every community is appreciated, because of its aesthetic appeal as well as its religious and sacred significance. According to Ejike;

Sacred dance is the only effective means of communication between the ancestral spirit and the living and also the easiest way to awaken them from slumber, especially with the ageless movement accompanied with the Iroko drums. (4)

Dance as an art uses non-verbal forms to communicate with its audiences. The non-verbal form always comes in form of gestures, movement and mine. In non-verbal communication rhythm and movement are important. The rhythm in every dance in Africa tells us the situation of event at a particular time. Dance rhythm in Africa in not static, it changes. With the dancers movement, the difference between ritual dance and social dance can be highlighted.

In ritual dances, symbols, metaphors, music and sometimes silence may be used to highlight the essence of worship and reverence for the presence of gods. Social dances on the other hand are less serious in content and form. Although they also have specific occasions in which they are performed. Some of these social dances are purely celebrative in nature. Dancers are free to add or subtract from the known movement to the unknown movements, but the movements have to be creatively and aesthetically beholding. This way the dancers are part of the religious worship to evoke and worship the gods and goddesses who are the guiding fathers or mothers of certain cults within any given society. Ritual dances are serious, for they have specific movements, rhythm and pattern to the dances. Also the occasions for performances are fixed by the chief priest of the gods after due consultations and the reasons for the ritual dance must be relevant to the community. Usually it is for burial of the dead, the evocation of the favor of the gods, the ancestral deification of the dead to the world of the spirits, or the cleansing of the society of the ills that hamper their progress. Some of the ritual dances are accompanied by ritual sacrifices and songs. Dance experience of a given society uses human body to produce action and passion in the dance. Dance in the primordial era is used to highlight the experience of the community at any point in time. This can be fully portrayed in the songs, costumes and movements.

The environment plays a vital role in the art of dancing. It has much influence on the dance steps, songs, instruments, costume and make-up. Dance as an art belongs to the community in which the culture is embodied based on how they move their bodies majestically. Rhythm and movement are indispensable in African dances. According to Primus;

“Dance in African context translates every day experiences of Africans into movement” and therefore concluded that dances in Africa is totally of African life.

Dance cannot communicate effectively without the dancers. In African dances, the dancers are the mediators between the dance leader and the audience. The dance leader in African dance always emerges as a performer who showcases great artistic tendency to make him a leader. Those qualities may be that of a good drummer, singer or a good dancer. He directs dance movements on stage. His work can also be compared with that of a choreographer in the modern theatre. The dance leader uses his body to pass the effective message to the audience.

Dance is always colorful and enjoyable when performed with the actual costume and make-up which may suit the dance objective at that particular moment. With the right costume and make-up, the audience will be able to appreciate and understand the dance fully. But in a situation where there is no costume and make-up in a dance performance that may not only be able to engender aesthetic appeal but its interpretative discuss, then the dance may not be well appreciated.

Dance in the modern theatre is not just a pastime engagement, it also boosts the economy of both the dancers and their managers. Dance makes statements about the society that owns it. Dance may have fast rhythm or slow rhythm depending on its message. For instance in ceremonial occasions, the rhythm of the dance movement is always slow, to signify the majestic nature of the ceremony at that particular time. Rhythm of dance movement in modern theatre determines and interprets the choreographer’s inmost ideology while creating the dance movement.
The movements in African dances are very communicative in nature. Movements in dances vary, depending on the peoples culture. In every dance movement, its rhythmic nature concentrates more on those parts of the body that serve as the communication point. For instance, in Ohofia war dance, the rhythm is always fast and the concentration is on the chest and shoulder. In Onitsha, for instance, the occasional dance movement is always slow and same as the rhythm. The movement depends on individual dances. African traditional dances can be loosely classified into two major categories; ritual and social dances. The origins of the dances are embedded in legends, and folklore. The description of the myths or folklores formed the context of the dance performance. Music and dance are regarded in most communities as gifts from the gods, to allow man to survive and enjoy the mystery of life. Ritual dances are deeply rooted in the religious sphere, and in most cases, the dancers are involved in authentic spirit possession on initiation into esoteric religious societies or cults to become members and dancers of the cults. Dance is an ephemeral art. It is an art that takes shape at the moment of performance. Thus, as one of the most direct artistic forms, dance affords its observers an immediacy of perception unlike any of the other art forms.

The realities are dictates of isolated realities, which mean that each dance exists within its own ritual origins, social milieu, and its performative functions and objectives within a given location. Dance is as old as the Nigerian man or indeed, the African man or better still man himself whether white or black. Dance starts with the notion of crawling as a child or of walking as a man. For both activities, “rhythm” is the keyword here.

In Africa, each dance has a context, a story within the performance. The context is the meaning of a particular dance. Whether it is a ritual dance or ceremonial dance, the context of the dance is most important because it guides the dancer on the tempos, the mood and even the images and metaphors. The dance must reflect the process of performance. Malborg states that;

The meaning of dance should be interpreted in its context, that context denotes not only historical, social or cultural context which are extrinsic. But also an intrinsic context that exists as intention on the part of dancer.(27)

The body of a dancer is an instrument of expression based on the mood required for the dance performance. Dancer are taught to use their bodies in the following ways; to tell the story in all African dances whether social or ritual. They are usually taught to be part of a bigger picture. The chief priest may be the star dancer while the other dancers dance in unison to form part of the total evocation. The body becomes the silent musical instrument which is used to form the wider rhythm or picture of the images which the dance is supposed to create. The traditional dancer is taught how to create mood, some dances have fast tempo and some are slow. The agility of the dancer in reacting to the rhythm of the music, the songs and the sounds of the drums often dictate the tempo of the dance. The dancers are also taught how to arrange symbols in an order that will make meaning to the original owners of the dance. Since it is emerging from their cultural consciousness and is also an aesthetic whole when danced. The processes of the arrangement of symbols allow the dancer to tell the complete story of a particular dance. Whether it is Bata dance of the Yoruba, Atilogwu of the Igbo people, or Korotso dance of the Hausa. The key ideology is that dancers are taught the primary use of the body, as a process of highlighting the specific aspects of the body in order to speak the language of the culture of the particular ethnic group.

The Igbo world view contributes a lot in shaping African traditional dances. Anthropologists inform us that an Igbo man is a story telling creature. The Igbo culture recognizes the need for imaginative development through creative storytelling. Storytelling in Igbo culture holds a preeminent place among the people and affords them the best chance to define and enhance their humanity. Storytelling has many uses in Igbo life and culture. First and foremost, it fosters the continuity of the cultural heritage through what is generally designated as akuko-ala (stories about the earth) which encompass what in western categories are called myths and legends. In addition ‘akuko-ala’ explains the mysteries of life and death, of the visible and invisible world, of gods, spirits and ancestors, of the origin of things, their relationships and underlying unities. It describes essential beliefs, philosophical ideas, social codes and approved modes of action. Storytelling tells of the human community in its confrontation with its environment and its adventures of human neighbours, highlighting all the time, the qualities of courage, endurance, heroic self-sacrifice of those whose actions gave shape and solidity to the community. Storytelling goes beyond tales of exemplary courage meant to inspire people in the present through an appeal to hero-worship. It more significantly, erects communal icons which are the permanent benchmarks in the existence of those gods like ancestral heroes which give credence to the received code of social conduct with its myriad injunctions and prohibitions known as Omena-ala (people’s culture).

In Igbo world view, the myth of origin and creation explains significant phenomena in the Igbo culture. The myth consolidates realities which have already been entrenched in culture and history giving them imaginative anchorage for easy assimilation by the memory and transmission from generation to generation. The Igbo oral stories about myths and legends are important for use in educating the Igbo child into the culture of the people and -into the ethical principles and moral values of Igbo society and in addition to providing recreation and entertainment. Chinua Achebe is of the opinion that; “It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters… The story is our escort, without it we are blind”. (124)

Although many Igbo people are now Christians, traditional Igbo religious practices still abound. The traditional religion includes an uncontested general reverence for Chukwu ala (earth goddess), beliefs and rituals related to numerous male and female deities, spirits and ancestors who protect the living descendants. The claim that the Igbo acknowledge a creator God or Supreme-Being, Chukwu or Chineke is however contested. Omenala encapsulates both politics and religion in Igbo society by fusing together space, custom and ethics as constitutional deity of the

Igbo. The living, the dead and the unborn, in Igbo world view form part of a continuum. The living pays tribute to their ancestors by honoring them through sacrifices. Dance as an art encapsulate the totality of African lifestyle and experiences and celebrates the ritualistic nature of African experiences. This work, therefore, studies, Jigawa States Farmers’ Dance and Harvest of Good Wil,l which are core contemporary Nigerian dances.

Semiotics, the science of signs in human society has a significant impact on conventional approaches to the analysis of body movements and communication systems. It has proved a special instrument in non-verbal communication studies, especially, in the area of dance where it provides a crucial theoretical basis for the analysis and examination of the structure and production of meaning. Saussure is of the opinion that:

A semiotic landmark in understanding how human beings communicate is based on relationship between the sign, either verbal or non-verbal or both and the object it designates or refers to. (24)

The link between the sign and its object is the concept. Semiotics may be the link between a scientific discipline and a world view but it is always well constructed. The word semiotics come from the Greek word Seemeiotikee (sign) which denotes the study of signs; what they represent and interpret. The study of semiotics in dance is based on the notion that the human body can communicate message through movements, especially in dance that has traditionally been located in the Humanities and Social Sciences. In the field of dance, Rudolf Laban’s approach is the semiotic study of dance through the analysis of human movements, which he considers basic and essential both to daily activities and the ability of human beings to express themselves. Laban states that “dance has undoubtedly re-entered the realms of the arts” (27). Semiotics in dance serves as mental interpretive tools in the minds of the choreographers. Drewal explains the relationship of mind to body saying:

In dance the vehicle of aesthetic expression is physical movement, so the importance of being clear about the relation of mind to body, of how mental things can be expressed physically is directly apparent. (34)

Semiotics elicits in the minds of the dancers not the final signified object, but a mediating thought that promotes understanding. Pierce states that:

A sign is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect. It creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign or perhaps a more developed sign” (46).

For Pierce, the sign has a triadic relation among object and interpretant. He also said that a sign includes the idea or interpretant to which it gives rise. In turn, this interpretant becomes a sign which is open to the same interpretive process of unlimited semiosis. Eco opines that:

The object of representation can be nothing but a representation of which the first representation is the interpretant. But an endless series of representations, each representing the one behind it, may be conceived to have an absolute object as its limit. (67)

Kinesithetics in semiotics is a comprehensive analysis of the various and specific body gestures which take a composite and all-encompassing approach to the whole body as a communication medium. Birdwhistell states that: “Kinesic is the study  of  body  motion  as  related  to  the  non-verbal  aspects  of  interpersonal communication” (12).

The semiotic of kinesic takes a truly structural approach to the analysis of body codes and a comprehensive examination of various body expressions and their inter-relatedness. In contemporary dance, it emphasizes greatly on semiotic implication of dance movements as a mode of communication. The core communicative semiotic elements in contemporary dance are; symbolic gestures, mime, props, mask, costumes and body painting. The use of semiotics in analyzing contemporary dance emphasizes critical examination of the various parts of the body like the upper body, torso, feet or different body parts and intricate actions such as fact rotation, ripples of the body as well as variation in dynamics, levels and use of space. As a primordial art form dance is used in rituals, hunting, communication, mock-fight, war, festivals and initiations. According to Doubler;
The semiotic dance movement of the primitive era, is religious and self expressive and communicative. It is social because it is an integrated part of the life. (10)

Semiotics in contemporary dance is treasured, because it is very significant to life and understanding of the dance movement. Semiotics in contemporary dance is an art form which is inculcated into the child from birth. It follows a process of imbibing the culture of his fathers, and training during rehearsal for a festival or ceremony. The art of semiotics in contemporary dance involves exercises such as shaking of the waist, shaking of the body, as well as shuffling of legs. Sometimes it may also include jumping and rolling. Semiotics in contemporary dance fosters mutual understanding among individuals living together in a given society. Even at times communities with diverse cultures are united by dance. Hence according to Fonteyn; “the practice of dancing brings people together in a friendly spirit”. [87]

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Item Type: Project Material  |  Size: 72 pages  |  Chapters: 1-5
Format: MS Word  |  Delivery: Within 30Mins.


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