By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
Like any story worth telling, this one involves several women.
It starts with a woman I love talking to, in a place I don’t remember. She’s reporting her dad: “Your mother can dance,” he said to her.
I never found out what came next, because she left his presence. She was uncomfortable, she said, with what might follow. Somehow she connected his words to something sexual.
If he was going down that road, I was tempted to respond, then he was hardly original: people marry dance and sex all the time. You only need to listen to pop music to see the sex-dance association in overdrive. Sometimes it’s metaphorical: the dancefloor is the bed or, well, any place convenient for coitus; and dancing/moving/stepping is sex or the physical response of one lover to the other. On some occasion, dance is foreplay.
What then does this mean for folks with two left feet? Not much, thankfully. Other things come into play.
For most lovers of pop, response to music comes in two ways. Mouth the lyrics. Dance to the beat. I’m no different. I could never do the alanta, that unruly dance. I could do the yahooze. Ditto the suo and the recent shakiti bobo. Elegant, mid-energy stuff. For foreign dances, everyone in love with hip hop did the lean-back, the self-describing dance promoted by Fat Joe, the non-dancing rapper.
One night in Cape Coast, Ghana, years ago with a former lover, I saw a guy do a terrific azonto, his hands and feet in animated dialogue. My companion looked on in admiration. As I watched her watch him, I recalled the old joke that ends with these words: “It is not he that danceth with whom; it is he who taketh her home.”
Nonetheless, I learned an inferior azonto afterwards.
The azonto is from Ghana, but Nigeria would not be cocky if its citizens couldn’t steal a dance from little Ghana. So as the buzz caught on in Nigeria, Wizkid recorded a song based on the azonto beat and named it Azonto – talk about brazen appropriation. That was in 2012.
Many months later, Wizkid would record songs on beats demanding a different type of dance. This time, it would come from the streets of Southwest Nigeria. It would be called the shoki. And as always, I’d try it out.
I come from a family of dancers. All of my siblings move superbly, except for the eldest, who claims to have done too much work raising us and so couldn’t generate the energy needed for dancing.
One evening a few years ago, my sisters showed me the shoki. I had seen it before but, as always, they were doing strange and marvellous things with it. One added a rotating finger to the move. That finger transcended her anatomy and became a part of the cosmos, a divine instrument of her fearful excellence.
Buoyed by this display of physical eloquence, I stood and attempted the shoki. Everybody else fell back laughing. I could do certain moves; and they knew their brother wasn’t a terrible dancer, but somehow this dance eluded me.
“Don’t worry,” they laughed, “you’ll figure it out.”
I wanted to figure it out. So I turned to the archive: music and dance videos. Not deliberately, but it’s almost always there in Nigerian music videos, and watching them is part of my job as a pop music critic. Songs about the dance were useless. Lil Kesh’s “Shoki” seemed to be about more than just the dance. Orezi’s song of the same title is a strange document:
“Lemme teach you how to dance ijo shoki
Put your hand around your neck
And bend to the side
Oya go down, oya go down
Oya go back like you dey reverse”
I learned quickly that those five lines are a blessed tutorial on how not to dance the shoki.
Although it felt nice to figure out how to do the dance, I knew no one would care if a writer/critic couldn’t dance. If only because for many people dancing and writing are incompatible. That is, unless the words “prose” and “dance” come together as metaphor, as Joseph Epstein said of John Updike: “He simply can’t pass up any opportunity to tap dance in prose.” Updike had won me over as an undergraduate, having impressed and exhausted me by his sentence to elaborate sentence brilliance. But then I had also adored Michael Jackson as a child. In effect, I craved both fine prose and tap dance.
These seeming contradictory impulses came together one night in an exchange with the writer Chuma Nwokolo. I teased him about the absence of a dancing bone in his body. He paused, eyed me, and said: “But I can dance on the page.”
There is a glorious photo online of James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry cutting a rug, an image wonderful both for the persons involved and the idea that these serious people could be carefree on the dancefloor. Still, like others, I don’t think of dancing as the forte of writers – not the ones I know personally, at least. After all, the symptoms of the writer’s life in Lagos are known to insiders:
Ultra-literate flirting? Yes.
Dancing? Not quite.
Being a human who has been moved to dance publicly on occasion, I have heard an incredulous “Oris, you (can) dance?” a few times. Once, an onlooker was specific in judgement, somehow implying that it’s wrong or perhaps unethical to write reviews and dance. The governing thought for the accusation was probably this: one requires seriousness, the other demands abandon.
Fair enough, but the accused hereby offers his defence:
- Dancing and writing do not take place at the same time.
- Both activities are actually linked. The prose writer and competent dancer seek precision and fluency, and both require a degree of imagination.
Side note: 2 is more truthful than 1; 1 is less elusive than 2.
And yet, I admit that I understand the incredulity. If only because I’ve seen more than my share of writers dancing badly – the sight is as undesirable as bland prose. As online columnist for the Abuja-based magazine, Metropole, I stored some of these ugly incidents in the permanence of prose. Recently, I went through the 50 pieces written for the column, and found two items I penned after the first Ake festival in Abeokuta, Ogun state. They had these passages:
“Teju Cole playing deejay and singing Wizkid’s ‘Roll It’, Pius Adesanmi doing a wiggle when pushed to dance in a circle of revellers… Tolu Ogunlesi’s wild limb movements he mistook for dancing.”;
“As a race, writers cannot dance. This observation became fact on the last day of the Ake Arts and Book Festival, when the general ineptitude propelled them to dance until they had to be helped from the building by operators of the June 12 Cultural Centre, who refused to play any more music, laying down tools like academic workers, to save the writing race from its own discordant moves.”
According to one theory, the shoki dance is derived from the preparatory rituals of the quickie, the impromptu sexual encounter carried out in stalls, in mildewed spaces, in public restrooms. It is a choreography of the fumbling phase of urgent take-her-from-behind sex.
The shoki-engaged palm that goes from hovering just above the ground to somewhere in front of the face lifts an imaginary dress from behind; the terminal flick of the same palm, which assures the onlooker of your style at doing this dance, actually hangs the phantom piece of clothing on the bending partner’s shoulders or back, depending on convenience and on how fast a fleshy (or flat) bum is exposed to grant a moist, compressive welcome to the phallus; and – this is my own contribution –the twisted lips accompanying the dance may be a comic recreation of the facial contortion during orgasm.
Yeah, this theory as annotated in the three steps above is male-centred and heterosexual. The dance mirrors the culture from which it has emerged. And probably because the shoki is a dance designed for a single person, this theory skips the entry stage of the quickie. Even so, the shoki embodies the pop music sex-for-dance substitution. The twerk may be indiscreet in its approach to sex; the shoki is sophisticated and oblique.
For a while, the shoki appeared to be a Southwest Nigerian dance seeking crossover status. Then I saw Iyanya, who’s from the south-south, do it in the video for the 2014 single “Finito”. Though it’s hard to learn the dance from a video that shadowy, it does serve a poetic purpose: aren’t shadowy spots suited for quickies?
In any case, the shoki is a Nigerian dance. Only a few people from outside the country have managed to pull it off with élan. Serge Beynaud from Ivory Coast, otherwise a very good dancer, attempts it in a video, but his shoki-engaged palm is limp. Wizkid tries to teach Chris Brown onstage somewhere in the world, but the dance-machine American doesn’t get it. YouTube is littered with foreign dance classes vending an inferior version. Once, I tried to teach an Ethiopian lady to no avail.
This last, I admit, could be my fault. How was I going to teach someone when my own competence happened suddenly? One day, I noticed that somehow my limbs had become compliant.
But of course, I must have practiced since it so happens that, in Lagos living, it is impossible to avoid music that demands the shoki. In bus stops, in restaurants, on radio – the assault of shoki-music is inescapable.
So, on a subconscious level, the eager candidate is always auditioning. If the right song plays, one hand can surreptitiously get to shoulder level and then flick air over in style. You do it so much and if the shoki-gods are on your side, maybe it works out. And yet it’s a tricky dance, as Mr Beynaud’s attempt proves. Some dances demand only a rhythmic coordination of the body; the shoki demands a coordination of legs and hands and attitude. Any one of these three goes missing and what you have is something resembling the shoki. Not the real thing. You still be learner.
For the capable shoki-dancer, however, it’s a malleable move. It responds to calibrations in rhythm and genre. So that sometime last year I found myself on a stage in Berlin, dancing a measured shoki to European techno music. After several minutes of passably pulling off the shoki to techno and some old school music, a smiling girl climbed the crowded stage.
“Where are you from?” she asked when she got to me.
I told her. She kissed my hands, and said something about African dance.
“Capital is Abuya, right?”
I laughed. It’s a European curse, this substitution of “y” for “j”.
At this point, my shoki game was fine.
In the chaos of clubbing, only one thing is required: the ability to step. And back in Berlin, I stepped and stepped and stepped.
“Yes, Abuja,” I said.
“Aren’t you surprised I know?” she asked a short while later.
Not really. But I obliged my petite interlocutor: “How come?”
“I’m from Kazakhstan,” she said. “It’s Soviet education.”
As I write this, I’m no longer sure why, but at the time her response struck me as such a good line. I typed it into my phone on the spot, and then recalled that evening with my sisters. What is that thing the Bible doesn’t say? Yes: The laughing stock shall be the shoki-hero.
This piece appears in the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.
Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.
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