A brief history of modern Nigerian dance and why you can’t do the shaku shaku

Nigerian music has always demanded movement. Even before Nigerian music resaturated the media in the past decade and half, displacing foreign imports like Sisqo and club lord Sean Paul, dance has always been the proper reaction to music from Africa’s most populous country. And not just dance of any kind but one that engages your soul and spirit.

­­­­Afrobeat, funk, highlife and afro-disco flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, and they all had various dances associated with them. Even during the 1990s, when US culture (films, music videos, records) flooded into the major cities and initiated a lull in the predominance of Nigerian music, break-dances, krump styles and the passage of electric currents were frequently seen on display until new studio technology and indigenous music came together to begin a trip that would return Nigerian music to the ears of people across the country and then the world.

One of the precursors of this new era was Makossa, which will perhaps go down in history as the most memorable Nigerian dance step. The Cameroonian import stole its way into Nigerian culture in the late 1990s and peaked in the early 2000s. Awilo Longomba was at the forefront of the movement with his song ‘Coupe Bibamba’. Its strong electric bass rhythms and prominent brass instilled spasmic gyrations in the dancer. Makossa, which means “dance” in the Douala language, traces its origins to a Douala dance called the kossa. The forceful thrusting of the hips present in Makossa still finds its way into present day music.

Galala came along and the show was taken over by who could stomp her feet on either side of her body in quick steady succession while bent in a stance that presumes she is about to tackle a bull. It was made popular by artistes from Ajegunle, a ghetto neighborhood in Lagos, and spear-headed by Daddy Showkey. It went on to become a popular sight in social gathering, especially when its southern Nigerian influence, Original Stereoman’s Sample Ekwe came on.

The street dance Suo, made popular by singer Marvelous Benji, followed shortly afterwards, with songs like “Danfo Driver” by Mad Melon and Mountain Blackguiding whoever had the stamina till its duty was fulfilled. Shaku shaku, the Nigerian dance of the moment, has similarities to the Suo in that the latter requiresone to squat while opening and closing their knees and thighs. Where it gets interesting, is the roll-around of the hands that follow this opening and closure, which is pulled out like is done and modified in Shaku Shaku.

Nigerian prudishness couldn’t stop Zule Zoo’s ‘Kerewa’ with its thrusting of the hips, which left little to the imagination. Its self-explanatory lyrics, and movements, were a breeze for all who wanted to join in the party.

Olu Maintain’s Yahooze enshrined its place in the evolution of Nigerian dance in the mid to late 2000s. Kelly Hansome carried it as his dance move for his song ‘Maga Don Pay’, a reference to internet fraud popularly called 419. The only thing required of the dance was the pointing of fingers towards the sky in circular motions, and sometimesthe shoulders decided to join in too.

Many new dances followed Yahooze that didn’t take  such as Naeto C’s ‘Ten-over-Ten’ and P-Square’s ‘Do Me’. They eventually fizzled out as quickly as they came, subsequently making way for the Alanta. Although Alanta didn’t last so long, the original Nigerian dance found many imitating vigorous hand and hip movements as if scratching the chest, all while raising one leg. Songs from Terry G engaged the rich creativity and humour of Nigerians as even the face of the dancer contorted into various forms while dancing. Despite the weirdness, and the curiosity at what was going through the mind of whoever created the dance, people were onto it in no time.

Azonto and Etighi, dances that originated from Ghana and Akwa Ibom respectively, quickly replaced the Alanta in 2012. Nigerian artistes made (read appropriated) a lot of music from the Azonto, and introduced it to the rest of the world. Afropop singer Wizkid was said to have taken the Azonto dance all the way to the United States, where he taught the dance to acclaimed American singer Chris Brown.

In 2013, Davido joined the list of singers attempting to create their own unique dance by introducing Skelewu, which didn’t quite take off on a massive scale. However,  it came back into prominence when MC Galaxy decided to create an offshoot of the dance that required people to move to the side while still doing the Skelewu. This was tagged Sekem.  With one hand on the chest and the other on your waist like the song advises, it was the duty of your predominant your leg to move from side to side.

After another failed attempt to popularize a dance as P-Square introduced Alingo,  a spin-off of the Azonto, 2015 sensation Lil Kesh popularised the ‘Shoki’ dance. It spread like an infection, so contagious that Ciara danced to it on her trip to Nigeria. Despite the rave, however, all Shoki required was for one to make like they were picking an item that fell on the floor, all the way up till the flick of hand indicates its journey has ended. The footwork was a basic alternate stamping on the floor.

Shoki was one of the longest reigning dances, lasting for almost three years before the current shaku shaku trend. It was complemented by Olamide’s ‘Shakiti Bobo’ which borrows foot movements of Sekem in addition to pumping one’s shoulders. Then there was the Dab, the stuffing of the dancer’s head into his armpits, which found its way from the Americas. The Dab can best be described as an intermission, in the event you need to take a break from all the other dance steps.

The thing about dance styles in Nigeria is that as soon as a new one is introduced, the previous dances feel like they happened eons ago. The novelty would be danced in every club, every church and at every owambe, becoming the ultimate indicator of one’s expertise at social inclusion.

People go to lengths to watch videos, and do a lot of practice so that they too can partake in the culture and not be left behind before a new dance arrives. On a subconscious level, the eager candidate is always auditioning. If the right song plays, the required body part automatically tries to engage in the expected dance step in a bid to finally get it right.

Where previous dances required only a rhythmic coordination of the body and repetition of steps, the Shaku Shaku demands, in addition to coordination of legs and hands and cool cards, a healthy dose of creativity.

It would be easy to ridicule anyone who doesn’t know how to dance the step by now – they’re a learner, in Nigerian parlance. But the truth is that despite how easy the shaku shaku looks, it is, in fact, very tricky and elusive. For the minute you think you have mastered the shaku shaku, someone else comes along and makes you question all the hours spent watching YouTube tutorials and practicing in front of the mirror. Their shaku shaku looks better than yours, and now you have to learn it. Once more variants of shaku shaku are created, there’s a likelihood you will want to copy it. And the more you try to copy it, the more likely you are to fail miserably, especially when you are trying to show off your newly acquired skillset to friends.

With other dance steps, the body and mind only focuses on one set of hand and leg movements – minor alterations only complement the dance step. With the Shaku Shaku, however, there are no minor alterations. Every variant is another dance step still classified under Shaku Shaku: the initial version made popular by Olamide; the Gangnam style offspring; the small step Shaku Shaku; the wider jumping Shaku Shaku; the more robotic head-bobbing shaku shaku; the South African gwara gwara infused Shaku Shaku etc. The list is as long as the limits of Nigerian creativity.

My advice: don’t start out wanting to be a jack of all shaku shaku. Let your body focus on one variant. When that is mastered and you can show off without floundering, move to the next one. It could take you 24 hours, or 24 days to get through the variations, but I hope it doesn’t take you 24 years. By then, we would have moved on to another great Nigerian dance.