Nigeria's Traditional Dance- Utta, and its Relation to Urban Afro Dance
Updated: May 22, 2022
We are excited to kick off our "Nigeria to the world" series which will focus on presenting the dances and culture of Nigeria. We will be connecting with local artists in Nigeria to bring the culture directly to you.
Our first entry in the series focuses on bridging the gap between traditional dance and Urban Afro Dance. Traditional dances are a rich part of Nigerian culture and have shaped urban Afro dances in both subtle and evident ways. In Utta dance we see so many similarities to the trending Urban Afro dances.
Below our contributing writer Ayomi Tsalu introduces us to the Utta dance.
UTTA DANCE by Ayomi Tsalu
Nigeria is one of the most culturally diverse nations of Africa. With over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups, each with its unique cultural heritage, the nation is a bubbling hub of festivities, cultural displays and fun fare all year round; setting the pace for dance floors and extending favourite playlists all over the world. Though we speak many languages (about five hundred languages) and are scattered throughout the Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western regions of the nation, we dance to the same rhythm; the rich and deeply-accented beats from drums and gongs and the peering sound of flutes and horns sending waves of joy down sweat-streaked bodies. Our cultures are a sensation to behold and we are a trendsetting vibe!
It is no wonder that Afro-Urban culture is making waves all over the world. From precolonial times when maidens danced at village squares, to the days of Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade who were kings of Afrobeat and Juju music respectively; to Beyonce’s ‘The Lion King’ music video (2019) and the featuring of Davido (a Nigerian Afrobeats singer) in the sequel of ‘Coming to America’ (2020), Nigeria has, for long, been home to some of the best music (A unique brew of highlife, hip-hop, and afro-beat) and dances in Africa. But what is good music if it does not inspire dancing? What is modernity without a bedrock of traditions?
Inspired by our traditional and urban dances, Nigerians and other African youths are bringing fresh vibes to dancing, making Afro-pop culture a global sensation across shores and borders. Through hashtags, dance challenges, choreography challenges, music videos and numerous giveaways on social media, to mention a few, what were once dances performed by bare-footed dancers in the village squares are now taking on a modern cloak and setting shoes ablaze with passion both online and offline. Yet, no foreigner has seen it all and no Nigerian knows it all. For Example, the South-south region of Nigeria; one of the most ethnically diverse regions with about fifty languages and ethnic groups, is home to some of the best cultural experiences in Nigeria. Delicious soups to keep the taste buds quiet for a long time, carnivals, festivals, masquerades and the most graceful dances you will ever see—Ekombi, Asian and Utta, to mention a few.
Utta is a traditional dance of the Ibibio people of Akwa-Ibom state and one of the spectacles of the state’s festivities. While its history and origin are vaguely known, passed only by oral tradition, and remains confined to the sources, the Utta has survived through generations and has remained an alluring wonder to those who have seen it.
In its original form, Utta is not a social dance; it is performed by professional cultural dancers at festivals and cultural occasions. It is mostly performed by female dancers adorned in the bright and beautifully fitted waist and chest wraps (Afong isin), headbands, beads worn around the neck and wrists, horsetails (Isim-enang) in hand and shakers (Uyiod and Nsa-ukot) tied around their waists and ankles for marking the cadence of the dancers’ movements. The Utta, unlike its more popular counterpart, the Ekombi, is fast and upbeat like the afro-urban dances of today. It is done to music from drums, a wooded block, horns and other traditional instruments, which are usually played by men who also accompany the lead vocalist, setting the pace for the dancers’ intricate footwork and continuous body undulations. When done right, the Utta showcases the dancers’ grace, beauty and agility.
Our culture is who we are and while culture should be dynamic and open to change for the continuity of a people, aspects of culture should be preserved and passed on. By engaging with it and infusing aspects of culture into contemporary society, we help to preserve culture. We evolve, not to forget but to preserve. It follows then to say that we can not boast of our arts today if it does not represent our cultures; we can not propagate trends if they negate our roots. Our traditional dances no longer need to be confined to their origins, they should continuously inspire the young and upcoming dancers and choreographers in their creation of new works.
To further the understanding of the Utta (dance) and how it can be engaged with and revisited to suit the audiences of today while learning and preserving its unadulterated form, here is a video to help you along.
Typical Costumes worn for Utta dance