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Contemporary Nigerian dances are as diversified as the culture from
which they emerge. This project is an exploration of the use of semiotics in
contemporary Nigerian dance. Contemporary Nigerian dance is deeply
rooted in the semiology of images because it is not merely an agglutination
of symbols, but symbols contained in the language content of any given
society. The place of semiotics in this instance dance, becomes an
expression of linguistic pattern of a choreographed contemporary Nigerian
dance. Semiotics interpretation is a concept that would help in the
understanding of meaning-making inherent in activity. Semiotics involves
the interpretation of signs, a study of how meaning is derived from both
simple and complex knowledge of images, sounds, words gestures and
objects. “The place of semiotics in contemporary Nigerian Dance” is thus,
aimed at educating choreographers and dance scholars on how semiotics
can aid the understanding of a dance through the appropriate channel of
interpretation. It is a conscious call to the realization of the role of
semiotics in understanding life, where culture codes form a basis of
communication. This project has been able to establish an understanding
of the way semiotics operates as an interpretive connecting rod between
thought, ideas and impressions.
This work is dedicated to God Almighty for giving me ideal wisdom
and strength to start and finish this programme.
To my wonderful lecturers Dr. Obadiegwu, Dr. Alex Asigbo, Dr. Charles
Nwadigwe, Mr. Dan Uwandu, Dr. Tracie Ezeajugh, Mr. C. C. Nwosu, and
Mr. Emma Ebo for igniting the endless burning desire in me to follow
Theatre Arts as a profession even up to PhD level. My profound gratitude
goes to God Almighty. May your name be highly praised.
Title page – – – – – – – – – i
Approval page – – – – – – – – ii
Dedication – – – – – – – – – iii
Acknowledgements – – – – – – – iv
Table of content – – – – – – – – vii
Abstract – – – – – – – – viii
1.1 Introduction and Background to the Study – – – – 1-9
1.2 Statement of the Problem – – – – – – 9-10
1.3 Aim of the Study – – – – – – – 10
1.4 Objective of the Study – – – – – – 10
1.5 Scope of the Study – – – – – – – 11
1.6 Significance of the Study – – – – – – 11
1.7 Research Methodology – – – – – – 11-12
2.1 Definition of Terms/Concepts – – – – – 13
2.2 Theoretical Frame Work – – – – – – – 13-17
2.2.1 An Overview of Structuralism of Semiotics – – – – 17-19
2.3 Dance as a Medium of Communication – – – – 19-22
2.3.1 Seasonal Dance – – – – – – – 22-23
2.3.2 Remedial Dance – – – – – – – 23
2.3.3 Initiatory dance – – – – – – – 23
2.3.4 Exploratory Dance – – – – – – – 23
2.3.5 Redemptive Dance – – – – – – – 24-25
2.3.6 Theoretical and Existing Interpretative Framework on Semiotic – 25-30
2.4 A Semiotics Approach to Dance Movements – – – 31-35
2.5 Implications of Semioties in Analysis of Contemporary Dance – 36-39
3.1 Data Presentation in Dance – – – – – – 40
3.2 Data Presentation in Harvest of Good Will – – – – 40-41
3.3 Data Presentation Analysis of Movement in Harvest of Good Will Dance 41
3.3.1 Princess – – – – – – – – 41-42
3.3.2 The Chief Priest – – – – – – 42-43
3.3.3 Community of Umuife – – – – – – 43
3.3.4 Audience – – – – – – – – 43-44
3.3.5 Backdrop – – – – – – – – 44
3.3.6 Two Robbers – – – – – – – – 44-45
3.3.7 The Chief Priest in Red Costume – – – – – 45
3.3.8 Sexuality Dance – – – – – – – 45
3.3.9 Women with Baskets – – – – – – – 45-46
3.3.10 Drummers – – – – – – – – 46
3.3.11 Masquerade – – – – – – – – 46
3.4 Synopsis of Jigawa State Farmers Dance – – – – 47
3.5 Data Presentation- – – – – – – – 48
3.5.1 The Tiling of the Ground – – – – – – 48
3.5.2 The Harvesting Period in the Dance – – – – – 48-49
3.5.3 The Buying and Selling Dance Movement – – – – 49
3.6 Comparative Analysis of Jigawa State’s Farmers’ and
Harvest of Good Will 49-50
3.6.1. Dance and Harvest of Good Will – – – – – 50-51
3.6.2. Drums – – – – – – – – – 51-52
3.6.3 Costume – – – – – – – – 52
3.6.4. Performance Arena – – – – – – – 52-53
3.6.5 Music – – – – – – – – – 53
3.6.6 Dancers – – – – – – – – 53-55
4.0 Data Analysis – – – – – – – – 56-58
4.1 Historical Background of Jigawa State farmers’ Dance – – – 58-59
4.2 Semiotic Indication in Dance as Tool for Cultural Propagation – 60-62
5.1 Summary – – – – – – – – 63
5.2 Recommendation – – – – – – – 64
5.3 Conclusion – – – – – – – 64-65
Bibliography – – – – – – – – 66-67
1.1 Introduction and Background to the Study
Dance is an ageless art from the history of creation. Dance made its debut into
the theatre as embellishment for formal drama, opera and musicals. Dance is a
primordial art which was used in rituals, hunting, communication, mock-fight, war,
festival and initiation. According to Sarrel. “The dance of primitive societies is always
serious because it is religious in a self expressive and communication sense” (7).
In every work of art, especially, dance, what makes it more effective is its
ability to follow a particular rhythm. So the rhythmic nature of African dance or any
other culture is ever-green in the minds of its people. Dance in every community is
appreciated, because of its aesthetic appeal as well as its religious and sacred
significance. According to Ejike;
Sacred dance is the only effective means of
communication between the ancestral spirit and the
living and also the easiest way to awaken them from
slumber, especially with the ageless movement
accompanied with the Iroko drums. (4)
Dance as an art uses non-verbal forms to communicate with its audiences. The
non-verbal form always comes in form of gestures, movement and mine. In nonverbal communication rhythm and movement are important. The rhythm in every
dance in Africa tells us the situation of event at a particular time. Dance rhythm in
Africa in not static, it changes. With the dancers movement, the difference between
ritual dance and social dance can be highlighted.
In ritual dances, symbols, metaphors, music and sometimes silence may be
used to highlight the essence of worship and reverence for the presence of gods.
Social dances on the other hand are less serious in content and form. Although they
also have specific occasions in which they are performed. Some of these social dances
are purely celebrative in nature. Dancers are free to add or subtract from the known
movement to the unknown movements, but the movements have to be creatively and
aesthetically beholding. This way the dancers are part of the religious worship to
evoke and worship the gods and goddesses who are the guiding fathers or mothers of
certain cults within any given society. Ritual dances are serious, for they have specific
movements, rhythm and pattern to the dances. Also the occasions for performances
are fixed by the chief priest of the gods after due consultations and the reasons for the
ritual dance must be relevant to the community. Usually it is for burial of the dead, the
evocation of the favor of the gods, the ancestral deification of the dead to the world of
the spirits, or the cleansing of the society of the ills that hamper their progress. Some
of the ritual dances are accompanied by ritual sacrifices and songs. Dance experience
of a given society uses human body to produce action and passion in the dance. Dance
in the primordial era is used to highlight the experience of the community at any point
in time. This can be fully portrayed in the songs, costumes and movements.
The environment plays a vital role in the art of dancing. It has much influence
on the dance steps, songs, instruments, costume and make-up. Dance as an art belongs
to the community in which the culture is embodied based on how they move their
bodies majestically. Rhythm and movement are indispensable in African dances.
According to Primus;
“Dance in African context translates every day
experiences of Africans into movement” and therefore
concluded that dances in Africa is totally of African life.
Dance cannot communicate effectively without the dancers. In African dances,
the dancers are the mediators between the dance leader and the audience. The dance
leader in African dance always emerges as a performer who showcases great artistic
tendency to make him a leader. Those qualities may be that of a good drummer,
singer or a good dancer. He directs dance movements on stage. His work can also be
compared with that of a choreographer in the modern theatre. The dance leader uses
his body to pass the effective message to the audience.
Dance is always colorful and enjoyable when performed with the actual
costume and make-up which may suit the dance objective at that particular moment.
With the right costume and make-up, the audience will be able to appreciate and
understand the dance fully. But in a situation where there is no costume and make-up
in a dance performance that may not only be able to engender aesthetic appeal but its
interpretative discuss, then the dance may not be well appreciated.
Dance in the modern theatre is not just a pastime engagement, it also boosts
the economy of both the dancers and their managers. Dance makes statements about
the society that owns it. Dance may have fast rhythm or slow rhythm depending on
its message. For instance in ceremonial occasions, the rhythm of the dance movement
is always slow, to signify the majestic nature of the ceremony at that particular time.
Rhythm of dance movement in modern theatre determines and interprets the
choreographer’s inmost ideology while creating the dance movement.
The movements in African dances are very communicative in nature.
Movements in dances vary, depending on the peoples culture. In every dance
movement, its rhythmic nature concentrates more on those parts of the body that serve
as the communication point. For instance, in Ohofia war dance, the rhythm is always
fast and the concentration is on the chest and shoulder. In Onitsha, for instance, the
occasional dance movement is always slow and same as the rhythm. The movement
depends on individual dances. African traditional dances can be loosely classified into
two major categories; ritual and social dances. The origins of the dances are
embedded in legends, and folklore. The description of the myths or folklores formed
the context of the dance performance. Music and dance are regarded in most
communities as gifts from the gods, to allow man to survive and enjoy the mystery of
life. Ritual dances are deeply rooted in the religious sphere, and in most cases, the
dancers are involved in authentic spirit possession on initiation into esoteric religious
societies or cults to become members and dancers of the cults. Dance is an ephemeral
art. It is an art that takes shape at the moment of performance. Thus, as one of the
most direct artistic forms, dance affords its observers an immediacy of perception
unlike any of the other art forms.
The realities are dictates of isolated realities, which mean that each dance
exists within its own ritual origins, social milieu, and its performative functions and
objectives within a given location. Dance is as old as the Nigerian man or indeed, the
African man or better still man himself whether white or black. Dance starts with the
notion of crawling as a child or of walking as a man. For both activities, “rhythm” is
the keyword here.
In Africa, each dance has a context, a story within the performance. The
context is the meaning of a particular dance. Whether it is a ritual dance or ceremonial
dance, the context of the dance is most important because it guides the dancer on the
tempos, the mood and even the images and metaphors. The dance must reflect the
process of performance. Malborg states that;
The meaning of dance should be interpreted in its
context, that context denotes not only historical, social
or cultural context which are extrinsic. But also an
intrinsic context that exists as intention on the part of
The body of a dancer is an instrument of expression based on the mood
required for the dance performance. Dancer are taught to use their bodies in the
following ways; to tell the story in all African dances whether social or ritual. They
are usually taught to be part of a bigger picture. The chief priest may be the star
dancer while the other dancers dance in unison to form part of the total evocation. The
body becomes the silent musical instrument which is used to form the wider rhythm
or picture of the images which the dance is supposed to create. The traditional dancer
is taught how to create mood, some dances have fast tempo and some are slow. The
agility of the dancer in reacting to the rhythm of the music, the songs and the sounds
of the drums often dictate the tempo of the dance. The dancers are also taught how to
arrange symbols in an order that will make meaning to the original owners of the
dance. Since it is emerging from their cultural consciousness and is also an aesthetic
whole when danced. The processes of the arrangement of symbols allow the dancer to
tell the complete story of a particular dance. Whether it is Bata dance of the Yoruba,
Atilogwu of the Igbo people, or Korotso dance of the Hausa. The key ideology is that
dancers are taught the primary use of the body, as a process of highlighting the
specific aspects of the body in order to speak the language of the culture of the
particular ethnic group.
The Igbo world view contributes a lot in shaping African traditional dances.
Anthropologists inform us that an Igbo man is a story telling creature. The Igbo
culture recognizes the need for imaginative development through creative storytelling.
Storytelling in Igbo culture holds a preeminent place among the people and affords
them the best chance to define and enhance their humanity. Storytelling has many
uses in Igbo life and culture. First and foremost, it fosters the continuity of the cultural
heritage through what is generally designated as akuko-ala (stories about the earth)
which encompass what in western categories are called myths and legends. In
addition ‘akuko-ala’ explains the mysteries of life and death, of the visible and
invisible world, of gods, spirits and ancestors, of the origin of things, their
relationships and underlying unities. It describes essential beliefs, philosophical ideas,
social codes and approved modes of action. Storytelling tells of the human
community in its confrontation with its environment and its adventures of human
neighbours, highlighting all the time, the qualities of courage, endurance, heroic selfsacrifice of those whose actions gave shape and solidity to the community.
Storytelling goes beyond tales of exemplary courage meant to inspire people in the
present through an appeal to hero-worship. It more significantly, erects communal
icons which are the permanent benchmarks in the existence of those gods like
ancestral heroes which give credence to the received code of social conduct with its
myriad injunctions and prohibitions known as Omena-ala (people’s culture).
In Igbo world view, the myth of origin and creation explains significant
phenomena in the Igbo culture. The myth consolidates realities which have already
been entrenched in culture and history giving them imaginative anchorage for easy
assimilation by the memory and transmission from generation to generation. The Igbo
oral stories about myths and legends are important for use in educating the Igbo child
into the culture of the people and -into the ethical principles and moral values of Igbo
society and in addition to providing recreation and entertainment. Chinua Achebe is
of the opinion that; “It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the
exploits of brave fighters… The story is our escort, without it we are blind”. (124)
Although many Igbo people are now Christians, traditional Igbo religious
practices still abound. The traditional religion includes an uncontested general
reverence for Chukwu ala (earth goddess), beliefs and rituals related to numerous
male and female deities, spirits and ancestors who protect the living descendants. The
claim that the Igbo acknowledge a creator God or Supreme-Being, Chukwu or
Chineke is however contested. Omenala encapsulates both politics and religion in
Igbo society by fusing together space, custom and ethics as constitutional deity of the
Igbo. The living, the dead and the unborn, in Igbo world view form part of a
continuum. The living pays tribute to their ancestors by honoring them through
sacrifices. Dance as an art encapsulate the totality of African lifestyle and experiences
and celebrates the ritualistic nature of African experiences. This work, therefore,
studies, Jigawa States Farmers’ Dance and Harvest of Good Wil,l which are core
contemporary Nigerian dances.
Semiotics, the science of signs in human society has a significant impact on
conventional approaches to the analysis of body movements and communication
systems. It has proved a special instrument in non-verbal communication studies,
especially, in the area of dance where it provides a crucial theoretical basis for the
analysis and examination of the structure and production of meaning. Saussure is of
the opinion that:
A semiotic landmark in understanding how human
beings communicate is based on relationship between
the sign, either verbal or non-verbal or both and the
object it designates or refers to. (24)
The link between the sign and its object is the concept. Semiotics may be the
link between a scientific discipline and a world view but it is always well constructed.
The word semiotics come from the Greek word Seemeiotikee (sign) which denotes
the study of signs; what they represent and interpret. The study of semiotics in dance
is based on the notion that the human body can communicate message through
movements, especially in dance that has traditionally been located in the Humanities
and Social Sciences. In the field of dance, Rudolf Laban’s approach is the semiotic
study of dance through the analysis of human movements, which he considers basic
and essential both to daily activities and the ability of human beings to express
themselves. Laban states that “dance has undoubtedly re-entered the realms of the
arts” (27). Semiotics in dance serves as mental interpretive tools in the minds of the
choreographers. Drewal explains the relationship of mind to body saying:
In dance the vehicle of aesthetic expression is physical
movement, so the importance of being clear about the
relation of mind to body, of how mental things can be
expressed physically is directly apparent. (34)
Semiotics elicits in the minds of the dancers not the final signified object, but
a mediating thought that promotes understanding. Pierce states that:
A sign is something which stands to somebody for
something in some respect. It creates in the mind of that
person an equivalent sign or perhaps a more developed
sign” (46).
For Pierce, the sign has a triadic relation among object and interpretant. He
also said that a sign includes the idea or interpretant to which it gives rise. In turn, this
interpretant becomes a sign which is open to the same interpretive process of
unlimited semiosis. Eco opines that:
The object of representation can be nothing but a
representation of which the first representation is the
interpretant. But an endless series of representations,
each representing the one behind it, may be conceived
to have an absolute object as its limit. (67)
Kinesithetics in semiotics is a comprehensive analysis of the various and
specific body gestures which take a composite and all-encompassing approach to the
whole body as a communication medium. Birdwhistell states that: “Kinesic is the
study of body motion as related to the non-verbal aspects of interpersonal
communication” (12).
The semiotic of kinesic takes a truly structural approach to the analysis of
body codes and a comprehensive examination of various body expressions and their
inter-relatedness. In contemporary dance, it emphasizes greatly on semiotic
implication of dance movements as a mode of communication. The core
communicative semiotic elements in contemporary dance are; symbolic gestures,
mime, props, mask, costumes and body painting. The use of semiotics in analyzing
contemporary dance emphasizes critical examination of the various parts of the body
like the upper body, torso, feet or different body parts and intricate actions such as
fact rotation, ripples of the body as well as variation in dynamics, levels and use of
space. As a primordial art form dance is used in rituals, hunting, communication,
mock-fight, war, festivals and initiations. According to Doubler;
The semiotic dance movement of the primitive era, is
religious and self expressive and communicative. It is
social because it is an integrated part of the life. (10)
Semiotics in contemporary dance is treasured, because it is very significant to
life and understanding of the dance movement. Semiotics in contemporary dance is an
art form which is inculcated into the child from birth. It follows a process of imbibing
the culture of his fathers, and training during rehearsal for a festival or ceremony. The
art of semiotics in contemporary dance involves exercises such as shaking of the
waist, shaking of the body, as well as shuffling of legs. Sometimes it may also include
jumping and rolling. Semiotics in contemporary dance fosters mutual understanding
among individuals living together in a given society. Even at times communities with
diverse cultures are united by dance. Hence according to Fonteyn; “the practice of
dancing brings people together in a friendly spirit”. [87]
1.2 Statement of the Problem
The inability to give various dance movements a definite meaning is a big
problem. Not much research has been done in the area of dance performance
analysis. Some amateurs can decide to put one or two steps together and call it dance,
without looking at the thematic importance of the steps. This work, therefore, tends to
look at dance semiotics as a means of interpretative communication and a tool for
cultural propagation and preservation. This work will therefore, attempt a detailed
semiotics analysis of dance creation and performance. It hopes to bridge the dialectic
between content and form within a particular dance performance. The work will aid in
understanding the art of dance creation between the chorographer, dancer and
audience. This is geared towards lending meaning to the dance movements when they
are seen in performance by viewers. It is believed that at the end, after resolving the
semiotic essence of the dance through clear understanding of the dance movements,
those dance movements will stop being seen as mere aesthetic pieces, but as tools of
positive communication.
1.3 Aim of the Study
The popularity of dance as an art form in Africa is outstanding. Contemporary
Nigerian dances have received limited scholarly attention. This limited scholarly
attention has resulted in the attitude of the people who believe that the ability and
skills for dance composition are instinctual and as such require no thought and
analysis. This is not only incorrect but also has continually limited the body of
knowledge available in the area of choreographic practice of semiotics in
contemporary Nigerian dance.
The aim of this work is to look at the viability of dance as a means of
communication and a tool for cultural propagation and preservation.
1.4 Objectives of the Study
i. Interrogate the semiotics of contemporary Nigerian dances.
ii. Analyze the semiotic interpretation of dance.
iii. Look at the place of semiotics in understanding modern Nigerian dance.
1.5 Scope of the Study
The study of semiotics in communication and contemporary dance are vast.
They represent a range of studies in all aspects of human interaction in arts such as
costume, make-up, directing and choreography. This work on semiotics in
contemporary dance as a medium for interpretative communication, will portray
semiotics as a social functional tool involving human beings interacting under
agreed conventions in which semiotics are of mutual benefit. Since the researcher can
not accommodate the study of many African dances in this study, there is need for
random selection. Hence, the scope of this study will be limited to two African
dances, viz: Nnamdi Azikiwe University Theatre’s Harvest of Good Will and Jigawa
State’s Farmer’s Dance. This work will give a detailed interpretative understanding to
contemporary dance as a positive means of communication.
1.6 Significance of the Study
Semiotics as a medium for understanding the culture, language and dance of
people can be used to communicate to the audience in a connotative and expressive
way. Man cannot live without a sign language …signs are means to express ideas. It
must be well conceived, channeled and received during interaction to be meaningful.
Hence this study is significant because it enables the audience and the choreographers
pay closer attention to semiotics as an interpretative tool hence, it is a medium of
communication in African dance. –
1.7 Research Methodology
The work adopts qualitative-interpretative method of analyzing data. The
study will obtain its primary data through the content analysis of performance texts.
The selected dance productions or texts will be critically analyzed and interpreted
focusing attention on semiotic communicative value of the dance movements and


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