I am a dancer and I work with Mutumizi dance-theatre company, a contemporary dance company. We perform, we train, we choreograph, run workshops, basically anything to do with dance, if you need it, we can do it.
Since we started in November 2007, we’ve had the opportunity to perform at different festivals. We performed at the Dance Week festival
and we were there when Bayimba
International Festival started; we were actually the opening act, and we performed to… ten people! Actually it was more, we performed to the artists and the crew as well!
It was a flop by Ugandan standards, very few people, but it was a start. Ugandans believe that only if you have many people, it’s a success. I believe what is important is that it is artistically coherent. So, I don’t give up, I’m in it and I believe in what Bayimba is doing, and I believe that they believe in what we are doing.
For the first festival we were invited by Bayimba to work with different artists, to create some sort of East African dance, which we didn’t manage to do because I think we underestimated the task. There are so many influences: in Uganda we have 56 dances, how do you represent all those? And then in Kenya there are so many, in Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi. You can’t really say that you are going to do it in two weeks. I was interviewing a junior lecturer at the dance department in Makerere University, and he actually let me know, to my shock, that contemporary dance has been around for almost three decades already. This may shock some of you, it shocked me, and I’m a dancer! So that’s the problem: people don’t know about this art-form because we haven’t had the opportunity to really take it out there and, in a way, it’s like contemporary art, you look at it and you’re like ‘that belongs to the white man, only foreigners interpret it better. Let’s stay with our traditional dances’. Otherwise, most of dance performances have been based on Hip Hop dances. We understand hip-hop because it gives us this nice emotional high.
Both in the Dance Week festival and in the Bayimba festival, most performances of contemporary dance have a mainly expatriate audience; Ugandans don’t necessarily follow it because it’s not for them, it’s new, it’s too complex for them. I think in a way that’s also our fault because we’ve not given them time, we’ve not fed them from the baby stage to the adult stage; we give them the hard stuff straight away. So I can understand the distance they want to keep from it.
Come this year, we were invited again to perform at Bayimba Festival, and there was a contemporary dance workshop
led by James Mweu
from Kenya. It was an interesting experience because we had four Ugandans as a part of it, then there were dancers from Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda. We kind of had this exchange of ideas, ways of working, and although James was the overall moderator of the whole thing, he created a piece for us.
I would say that for me, the experience of working with different cultures kind of changed the way I related with them, because I felt that a dancer from Kenya or Tanzania or Rwanda is not the same as a dancer from Uganda. And even if you brought them together, you kind of compared different countries, they are not the same because different cultural experiences inform the way in which we work. Ugandans have been known to be lazy but I can assure you that Tanzanians are a lot slower, and the Kenyans are ‘chi-chi-chi’ [faster]… I mean, even the nature of their dances in themselves: Ugandan dances, generally, the way I see them, are calm and it’s not about, ok, there is energy and there are points where you have energy but it’s not about complex movements. Kenyan dancing is more about the technique of the movement, you know? In Uganda though we’ve not been exposed too much to contemporary dance, we kind of bring from our background of traditional dance, so it’s not necessarily too complex.
Anyway, this experience gave me an opportunity to learn that everyone’s differences should be celebrated, and just because you’re different doesn’t mean you’re wrong. That’s what I love about contemporary dance, because I could walk from here to there and back, and I could do that for 10 minutes and I’ve said something. Now, you’re probably wondering what have I said, but if I put a title to it and I give you a synopsis, you say ‘ah, ok, so this is what he was saying, so this is how he expressed himself’. Or I was told about a performance where a guy stared at a light bulb for 10 minutes then he walked off, and that was it! It was a performance, but it’s classified as contemporary dance.
So I’ve learnt that there is that freedom of expression, and with that I was able to get a deeper understanding of why this dance form is popular in Europe, because people were tired of the rules. And people like me who like to rebel against the establishment find this dance form quite liberating. I met some people from Nairobi during the workshop this year, and one of them recommended to me to do a workshop in Kenya, something I’ve never done before. Now this was, what, two years after studying contemporary dance, and already I’m conducting a workshop. People take years to do that, you know? It was an honour for me. It was scary as well, but I felt this was my opportunity to make my mark, I’m not going to sit back and say ‘oh, because I’ve done this and this and nobody else did it, then that means I’m qualified’. No, I dance because I want to and I need to.
Thanks to Bayimba I got a chance to be exposed even further. As a dancer I needed to make progress very fast, to make a mark. I have a goal I need to achieve. When I studied dance, I felt that people didn’t have the opportunity to develop, and they really wanted to. There are so many people out there who want to dance but don’t get the opportunity to, and by getting that exposure I build a reputation, a credibility. That means I can have a voice, and I can speak for those who don’t have it. In the long run, I can get those opportunities to them, even if it’s through me, if I have to train and then train them, for me that’s a plus.
Exposure, for me, means that I get to perform in a lot more places, and if you’re not exposed as an artist, then you don’t move. If you aren’t exposed then you are nothing, even if you are the best writer or dancer in the whole universe. If I have never read anything from you or haven’t seen you perform, I don’t know you. I have no way to know.
I performed a solo at the Dance Week this year, before the 2nd Bayimba Festival, and when I was rehearsing it I had a couple of friends who came by to watch it, and they were impressed by what I’d done. Not because they didn’t think I could do it, but because they had known me since before I started dancing, and they saw me for the first time I performed at Dance Week and I was just doing my own things, but now they realized they had an understanding of what contemporary dance was, and I could express myself and be understood. So for me, the affirmation I got from them made me feel like, yes, I have finally found my place here, and now it’s time to move forward. For all this time it’s been about making a point of ‘I can do this, I can do this’, but when they finally said ‘wow’, I’m thinking, ok, now, this is the start…
For so long I wanted to dance and I wasn’t able to, I was ready to grab on to anything. And for me I could say the turning point happened the moment I entered a dance studio and I took my first class, I’m thinking- finally, this is the beginning of the journey. All the things that had happened to me had led me to this point. So by the time Bayimba came, the train had really started moving, it was going, going, it can only go faster now.
I have a dream to start a performing arts school, of course starting with dance, eventually go to music and theatre. Because I believe the arts in themselves are all meant to be one element. That’s why you find that musical theatre works a lot, because it combines music, dance and drama, so it’s more engaging. Even in Africa, our dances tend to have a theatrical element, and storytelling and all that. More exposure gives you reputation and reputation means that if I write a project for funding, then someone says ‘Sam did this, he worked with this one and this one and this one and this one’, and they’re big to them, they’re significant, [they will conclude]‘then that means he must have something worth funding’. Maybe credibility would be the right word, to be able to command that respect. Not for my own selfish reasons because I don’t need the fame, as Sam. But I need the fame so I can get to where I want to go.
I’ve wanted to dance since I was a child, and I’ve only started recently which was about 5 years ago. So imagine childhood to adulthood, all that gap, all that is time that was lost. If I had studied from when I was a child up to now, I’d be a lot different. But I’m not disgruntled, no. I think there’s a reason why. I think the reason is so I can be motivated to want this for other people, because if I had had that opportunity from childhood, I’d probably be selfish, I’d be thinking ‘me, me, me’. But now I’m thinking ‘I didn’t have it, now I have it and this is how I feel’, and there are kids out there who want it, who I believe can benefit from it. So now if I get trained, I can train them, because right now I’m a dance instructor, I choreograph, that’s what I do, that’s my contribution, that’s my drop in the bucket -it’s not the whole bucket, it’s a drop, and many drops make the full bucket.