This study aims at pointing out one of the upcoming dances with its origin from Africa which is becoming very popular within its short time of invention. In an attempt to do this, this study will be looking at Roland Barthes’ arguments on Semiology and Structuralism within the language system and its relation to modern dance. The specific objectives of this study are to determine the level of popularity of Azonto dance and it’s relating music genre amongst other nationals from other parts of the world, to find out whether Azonto dance has any effect on people’s dancing styles, to find out the level of acceptance of Azonto dance and music to people from different ethnic and national backgrounds, and to identify the way in which people understand the gestures and signs associated to this dance.
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Dance in Africa is a holistic part of society. It is not truncated or separated as an entity in and of itself. Dance is used to facilitate all phenomena in most African societies (Welsh, 2004:14). The African dance has a lot of variation in terms of the various cultures on the continent as well as the different musical and movement styles which goes along with them. Every dance has its own style and movement which reflects the culture of a particular group or ethnic setting in way. Most of these dances are very communicative and this resemblance is evident in a lot of the dancing styles on the African continent. There are countless dance forms that identify the numerous ethnic groups and cultural differences in styles of the Ghanaian people (wikipaedia). African dances 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 (Welsh, 2004).
Ghana has a lot of traditional dances like the Adowa, Kpanlogo, Agbadza and Damba which are primarily performed as ceremonial dances. There have also been other popular and more contemporary dances like moon walk, slide, creep walk, etc in the past few years. Unlike the traditional dances whose motives are to tell a story or express some idea or emotion, most popular dances in Ghana are performed for fun as social interactions, especially among the youth. However, one particular popular dance which seems to have defied the odds of modern dance in Ghana is the Azonto. This African dance form incorporates complex co-ordinates body movement and non-verbal communication in a rhythmic fashion in very few one-two timed steps. Just like most African dances, knee bending and hip movements are rudiments to dancing it. The dance involves movements of the feet, knees, hands, and hips in rhythmic fashions which can actually be coordinated in a style to communicate a message. Generally, the dance reflects the creativity, intelligence, and rich sense of humour of the Ghanaian people.
Background of Study
According to Welsh (2004), no dance form is permanent, definitive, or ultimate. Change occurs, but the basic rudiments of dance remains the same. Dance is for all people. One need only recall that dance needs neither common race nor common language for communication; it has been a universal means of communication forever.
The dance, which is usually performed with an accompanying smile, evolved from the combination of several local dance moves that originated from Ghana during the early 2000s. There are different stories about the origins of Azonto and its subsequent popularity. One story about the Azonto dance has it that it started somewhere in Bukom, Chorkor and James Town (all being suburbs in Accra) where it was first called “Apaa” (work for pay). It was a form of dance that represented movement activities like ironing, boxing, driving, washing etc. Another source of information has it that the term ‘Azonto’ was first used by students of the Senior Secondary Schools to mean life (or the hardships of life – “abraabo”) (ModernGhana.com). Features of the Kpanlogo dance, the traditional dance of the Ga’s, can also be seen in the Azonto. The same goes for the Gawu dance, an adopted dance of the Ewe but originally from Togo. The dance has evolved with the fast pace dance culture of modern West Africa.
The dance was made popular by the Ghanaian football star, Asamoah Gyan in his goal scoring celebrations for his club and for the Black Stars (the senior national football team of Ghana), especially during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (ibid).
Currently, the dance is continuously evolving with complex dance styles and movements. The latest dance craze has become so popular that it now dictates the rhythm of hip-life music (which is a contemporary genre of music in Ghana which fuses the traditional hi-life music with the modern hip-hop music). The commercialization of this dance has made Hip-life musicians include Azonto in their music lyrics and video clips. The dance is very popular among the youth and can be performed by anyone regardless of gender or ethnicity.
With traditional dance facing serious threats of decline especially among the youth, Azonto represents a combination of modern and traditional elements. Azonto epitomizes Ghana’s ingenuity and originality through the spirit of dance (World Press). It primarily embodies sociability and socializing.
It was stated on ModernGhana.com that the dance is spreading fast in the USA, U.K and other parts of the world with large populations of Ghanaians. Even Prince Williams is said to have deeply fallen in love with Azonto and he dances it at any opportunity he gets (Source).
Ghana’s Azonto dance been rated as one of the top 10 African dances to have gained global stature either recently or, in the case of Soukous, in the last 40 years (MyWeku). The Azonto dance has threatened to eclipse the success of some of Ghana’s famous exports like cocoa, gold and its exciting brand of football. The Azonto is still going strong, and was last seen on London’s Oxford Street (ModernGhana.com).
A qualitative research approach is proposed for this study. Primary data would be used for the purpose of this study through interviewing which would be designed in the light of the objectives of the study. This research will be a qualitative research. Scholarly works of other field of study that will be useful to this research will be used. Print and electronic works such as newspapers, articles and journals will also be used. I also will adopt the use of a case study, although due to the nature of the research, I will not be administering a questionnaire but would conduct conducting an interview, I will strictly base my arguments on past works and use real life examples to achieve my aim and purpose of the study.
The sample of the study covers African students currently studying in Cyprus International University. This sample of 20 students where 10 males and 10 females (50% male and 50% female) would be selected purposively from African students with different nationalities. Respondents’ opinion regarding the effect of African dance and the popularity of Azonto would be collected through the interaction and interviewing session.
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Dance and Semiology
Most of the students were identified as music and art lovers because they all stated their passion for the love and interest in such art. They had all come in contact with different forms of dance styles especially those from their communities and cultures. They stated a common characteristic of African dance being full of energy, interesting, communicative and full of life. Some also thought of African dance as a way of identifying a particular culture. Some students also saw some of the indigenous African dance as being passionate and addictive especially with the tunes that went along with them. They believed dance in general is never full without the presence of a form of music to go along with it, thus, they go side-by-side.
We can relate dance as a language from the perspective of Roland Barthes who describes language as a system of signs that expresses ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of deaf mutes, symbolic rites, polite formulas, military signals, etc. He calls this semiology. Azonto is a communicative dance which is full of signs and symbols, and involves a lot of communication between the dancers and the audience. Barthes states that signs and codes are meant to be historically and culturally specific. If you relate this Barthes concept of sign, and the concept of semiology to dance, you will realise that dance is not a universal language. That there are hidden signs which must be understood in order for a spectator to fully understand a particular dance movement. Azonto as a dance has its origin from some indigenous Ghanaian dances like Kpanlogo (a traditional dance of the Ga’s) and Gawu dance (an adopted dance of the Ewes). Though the Azonto dance is more of a fusion of other contemporary dance elements, it still has its roots from very indigenous dances from the Ghanaian culture. All these traditional dances involve symbols and signs made by the dancers.
Roland Barthes goes on further to argue that material reality can never be taken for granted. It is always constructed and made intelligible to human understanding by culturally specific systems of meaning. These codes and signs are not universally given, but are historically and socially specific to the particular interests and purposes which lie behind them. Azonto as a contemporary dance involves a lot of movements and communication through the use of gestures and hand signs. For instance, a dancer could be making dance movements and at the same time trying to draw the shape of a heart with his/her fingers. This shape could be translated into several meanings depending on the background or culture of the observer. One could just interpret it as a shape of a heart whiles another would interpret it as a sign of love or a way of telling the observer that he/she has a kind heart. So we realize that a sign or symbol may not have the same meaning to the observer upon seeing it. Fernando de Saussure argues that it is not possible to understand individual linguistic signs in a piecemeal, ad hoc or empiricist fashion. He goes on further to say that they have, rather, to be explained by showing how they fit together as arbitrary signs in an internally coherent system or structure of rules and conventions. These signs cease to be arbitrary and become meaningful once they are located within the general structure of the language. Barthes notes that ‘any semiology postulates a relation between two terms, a signifier and a signified’ a distinction elaborated by Saussure. There is also another term in this, the sign itself (be it linguistic or mythological), which contains the signifier and the signified, in the case of the actions and gestures made by the dancer and the observer who would be in the position to interpret these actions.
Strinati (2004; 224) stated that the rise of modern mass communications, and the associated proliferation of popular media culture, therefore become central to the explanatory framework of postmodern theory. What is inferred from this is that the mass media have become so significant for communication and information flows within and between modern societies (and consequently the popular culture they broadcast and promote increasingly defines and channels everyday life in these societies) that they, along with consumerism, have given rise to the characteristic features of postmodernism. We realized that the advent of television and other tools communication tools like the radio has been aiding tools for the popularization of this particular kind of dance. Most of the students either had first contact with the Azonto dance via internet on YouTube, or on television and/or musical videos. We realize that the advent of technology has helped in the awareness and advertisement of this kind of dance across the continent and beyond. This is a reflection of modernity and post modernity in our current cultural set ups. Since the Azonto dance is originally from Ghana, technology has played a very important role in the awareness and public knowledge of this dance. Most individuals across the world heard or saw this dance through mediums like the internet and television. A lot of these enthusiasts learnt their basic steps through these same channels without going to the dance’s place of origin.
Roland Barthes goes on further to say that meaning is not something which is given or which can be taken for granted. It is manufactured out of historically shifting systems of codes, conventions and signs. We realized that the various dance symbols associated to Azonto had its origin from other indigenous dances. This new dance has metamorphosized into a dance where by the dancer can express him/herself freely with personal gestures. It’s a dance which has no particular pattern with the exception of fusing some basic dance steps to distinguish it from other emerging dances. Strinati (2004: 101) stated that cultural meanings are not universal, nor are they divorced from the social conditions in which they are to be found. Rather, they present themselves as universal when they are really historically and socially fixed.
Dance, in general, reflect the way of life of a group of people. It is an essential part of culture. It could carry a message through its gestures as well as it being a medium of communication. More recently, there has been an influx of different dancing styles and patterns which are contemporary forms of ancient and traditional dances from all over the world. The beauty of it all is how individuals embrace these various dance patterns into their own way of dance movements. Africa is the second largest continent in the world and it has a very large number of people who also reflects its pure culture and heritage. Among such traditions of the people on this continent is the uniqueness of every tribe or ethnic groupings’ own practices. Dancing has been a way of life for almost all these cultures and it is part and parcel of these people.
Azonto dance from Ghana is no exception in this context. The dance is quite new and it’s spreading like wild fire on the world stage where this dance is gaining popularity every minute with the help of the internet especially on “YouTube”. It has become one of the biggest things to come out of Ghana in which most music lovers and dance enthusiasts identify this country with. It isn’t shocking to find yourself nodding your head or tapping your feet to tunes of Azonto or falling in love with the unique movements by its dancers. One easily falls in love with the dance upon seeing it. The dance is one of the easiest to learn and it’s so unique that you can incorporate your own movements to suit yourself. Azonto is an expressive dance. This means you can tell a story, show your emotions and personalize it. So an individual doesn’t have to be afraid to do crazy things with it. Even though you can do this dance with almost any song (well, except classical music), it helps the dancer a lot if he or she is dancing to a high-tempo up-beat like Afrobeat tunes, pop music or a typical Azonto tune.
Dance can be used as a tool to get people closer and also can help in relating to people more easily because they share something common. They have something that can be easily identified with even though they may be coming from different backgrounds or settings. Therefore we don’t have to speak the same language or come from the same place before we can get along with others, but tools like dance can be a very effective medium through which people can take away all barriers and make them feel as one because most of the actions of dance is universal and can make people share a common feeling or mentality.
A world renowned dancer, writer and scholar in the field of Dance and Black Studies by name Dr. Kariamu Welsh when asked about the future of Africa/Back dance and the direction she saw it moving in the future, she stated that Black Dance will take many directions. As a genre, it will continue to self reflect and redefine itself but it will remain an artistic and creative force for many of us. Black Dance is ancient and it has many stories to tell. These stories will take the form of narratives, abstract works, improvisations, neo-traditional dances, slamming, jamming and other forms that have yet to be imagined. The beauty of Black Dance is that it is a place where new and innovative movements are born. Those creative sparks influence many people and every once in a while they actually inspire a revolution (Glocke, 2011: 263)
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