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Contemporary dance facing possible exit

Alfdaniels Mabingo (C) during one of the local dance productions

Although modern dance is gaining popularity as reflected in the various dance festivals in Uganda, artistes are still grappling with the lack of dance spaces, classes, instructors, identity and dwindling numbers of dancers, among others.

And Alfdaniels Mabingo, a Ugandan dancer, choreographer and academic, warns if nothing is done, the art faces local failure.

“The crisis of relevance is exemplified by very low reverberation between the dance form and society. This crisis can be traced to how delinked modern dance is with the communities. Its market outreach is very minimal,” he tells The Observer. 

Latin Flavour Uganda’s Samuel Ibanda, however, disagrees: “Like for most things where there is not enough access to information or knowledge, people go back to avoiding research. You do not know what you have till you lose it. Let us not lose the gift of culture and art.”

“I think there is a new dance company formed in Uganda every day; the only fear is seasoning, training... The absence of youth centres and spaces for people to create also limits a lot. In Kampala, the National theatre has become a stronghold for dance and I hope the talk of selling this space is only a rumour,” Ibanda says.

According to Mabingo, who is pursuing a PhD in Dance Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, “The crisis of practitioners is visible in the dwindling number of Ugandans practicing modern dance”.

Female dancers, especially, are fewer since the Namasagali College days.

Mabingo also notes: “With the emergence of African contemporary dance and other urban youth dance forms, the ethos of modern dance have been disrupted, contested, and rethought.

With artistes searching for professional and artistic identities, it is difficult to find a consistent dance company, choreography or dancers still true to the ideals of modern dance.”

But Ibanda believes “Identity can be achieved when there is steady growth”.

“However, the disappointing part is that the performing arts, and in this case dance, is excluded from the national curriculum,” Ibanda, a dancer and choreographer, laments.

The founder of Mambya Dance Company, Oscar Ssenyonga, says contemporary dance has been growing steadily over two decades as a result of festivals such as ‘Dance Week Uganda’, ‘Dance Transmissions Festival’, Kenya’s ‘Nairobi Festival of Solos and Duets’ and ‘Dance Encounters’, and Tanzania’s ‘Visa 2 Dance’ and ‘Time 2 Dance’. More recently, Rwanda has introduced ‘East African Nights of Tolerance’.

“These initiatives have spurred the growth of the contemporary dance sub-sector. They have also provided a space for dancers and other stakeholders to engage in conversations on issues that affect art and artistes, and possibilities of development for the future,” Ssenyonga says.

“The most common topic in East Africa has been the need for a network and database of dancers and organisations within the region to facilitate information flow, development and expansion.”

For Mabingo, modern dance in Uganda has two futures to pick from: one with dance, or one without it. 

“A future with it is possible if reforms are critically and carefully made. This will mean charting the uncharted territories, taking risks, and stretching imaginations. [Otherwise], we might be seeing modern dance wrapping up its act to head for the exit on this stage that is Uganda,” he adds.

- The author works for The EastAfrican newspaper.

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