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Discovering Myself With UCI’s West African Dance Group

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Located in a secluded corner of the Anteater Recreation Center is the Activity Annex. Walking in, I’m greeted by two women dancing synchronized to hip-hop music. A couple lie across the room, straining themselves with ab workouts. I was 25 minutes early to the West African Dance Group (WADG) practice. I mimicked a nonchalant face in trying to hide any sign of nervousness, hoping that my brief experience in Tahitian dance would be enough to save me. 

The WADG competitive team consists of eight dancers, many of whom grew up in African families. Dance is an integral part of African culture. It plays a key role in religious services, festivals and entertainment. However, the WADG is an Afro-fusion group, meaning that while their choreography is heavily influenced by African movements, it also incorporates other genres. 

Dance has always been a means to unify the African community, and its significance goes far beyond entertainment. Every movement originates from a specific part of the diverse continent. 

“We often want to have a message to it, and just make sure that people know that, like, there’s more to it than just movements of the body,” Anastacia Nwosu, captain of the WADG said. 

According to Nwosu, dance has a spiritual importance. When she choreographs dances, she keeps in mind that every move and sound tells a story and evokes emotion. 

“We tell stories through our pieces, we don’t just dance,” she said. 

She referred to a piece that the group is working on regarding corruption in Nigeria. Nigeria holds a score of 24/100 in the world’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), with a score of 0 indicating the most corruption. The team hopes to convey its stance on the state of Nigeria in upcoming performances. 

The WADG graciously allowed me to participate in their weekly practice as they prepared for a performance at the Nigerian Association Conference that will be held from April 14-16. Nwosu excitedly asked me, “Are you ready to dance?” I replied “yes,” but I was afraid to engage in a dance that so beautifully represented a diverse culture that I know little about. 

That day’s practice featured a dance around “2 Sugar” by WizKid feat. Ayra Starr. After watching Nwosu break down the entire dance, I was naively confident in my dance abilities due to her effortlessly majestic movements. 

I completed the first two movements successfully, then I met a move called Network. The Network is accompanied by an arm movement that I can only explain as “squaring up.” As if that wasn’t difficult enough, this was to be done while completing a half circle. 

To complete the circle, we were expected to do the Gwara Gwara, which is commonly attributed to South Africa. Some may recognize the dance from Rihanna’s performance at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards. Seeing how difficult the move was for everyone to complete, I sought help from Mmesomachi Onyia, a first-year biological science major and WADG dancer. 

She broke the movement down into three parts: an inward turn of the knee, a foot lift and an arm swing. Onyia told me to imagine doing the “nae nae” in the aspect of the dramatic leg and shoulder movements. Although they are not the same dance, thinking of the similarities between hip-hop movements and African movements was helpful throughout the entire practice. After practicing for an entire five-minute break, my Gwara Gwara looked less like I was swinging my kneecap while shrugging my shoulder. 

Even after taking the time to practice the Gwara Gwara, I completely forgot everything Onyia told me and went back to my dramatic kneecap swing. We continued to close out the dance and in all honesty, it didn’t get any better for me after the Network.

As we finished our last practice run, I realized that I wasn’t as bad of a dancer as I thought. Practicing with the WADG was a sentimental experience though. Although I do not identify ethnically as African, I am aware of history, science and slavery. I understand that I am a descendant of the African continent. However, not knowing my origins makes it difficult to feel completely connected to any one group of people. 

Growing up, my grandpa would tell me we were Haitian while the rest of my family disagreed. Meanwhile, people constantly point out my French last name, and I go along with any narrative they conjure up to avoid having to explain my own uncertainty. 

More importantly, this experience showed me that having a community is essential. Even as an individual that identifies as Black, unsure of my ethnic background, it felt good to come together with a group of women who are proud of themselves and where they come from. I hope that one day, as I continue to seek answers, I will share their confidence. 

For now, I plan to follow the advice of one of the WADG’s wisest members. 

“We’re all united under the continent of Africa… It’s really important to know that we should take strength in numbers that we have here… We’re like [2]% Black people at UCI, so we should really take strength and pride in the community we have here,” Onyia said.

Jai’La Du Rousseau is a 2022-23 Copy Chief. She can be reached at jdurouss@uci.edu.