Isaac Ouro-Gnao reflects on the the work of Vicki Igbokwe of Uchenna Dance, a pioneer in UK hip hop theatre
Think about hip hop theatre in the UK and you will veer towards names like Jonzi D, Benji Reid, Robert Hylton, and Kwesi Johnson. I won’t ask the tired question or point to the obvious. Representation is imbalanced because the told history is imbalanced. This rich community and artform’s roots are made to seem male dominated – ‘made to seem’ as often, this is never the case.
Histories and achievements by women in this 30+ year old artform have been ill-told or left untold. Maybe it’s down to the recording and archiving of this form being limited, artist led, non-existent or purely spoken. Without such documentation, these truths and histories are lost to us. Leading to generations of hip hop theatre artists and practitioners lacking knowledge about those who came before.
With a focus on hip hop and dance theatre (for there is a breadth of untold histories in the wider commercial world of hip hop and street dance), this deep dive isn’t an attempt to offset years of imbalance. But it is an attempt to tell the stories of artists: those who came before, those making waves, and those with growing legacies.
One such artist is Vicki Igbokwe.
The Origin Story:
‘I got baptised on the dancefloor’
It’s July 2008. An ambitious Vicki is awarded a Trailblazers bursary by the Association of Dance in the African Diaspora (ADAD), now part of One Dance UK. And she sets her sights on New York, the home of club dance styles gripping her, calling to her. House. Landing at Peridance Studios and pouring herself into the artform. She arrives and trains, and trains, and trains. Learning from pioneers like Brian Green, Ejoe Wilson and Marjory Smarth. There, whispers of a dazzling neon underground club grew, promising a life changing experience of house dance. Offering of its core and essence are appealing. So, she follows the trail and finds herself at the doors of club Sin Sin, on a House night called Soulgasm.
House is a music genre and a dance style. Musically, the style grew from two DJs – Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles – remixing disco songs in the late 70s with other genres like Afro beats and electronic music. And there it was, booming in all its energetic glory through the entrance of Sin Sin.
As a dance style, the form is recognised through its rhythmic footwork and body grooves inspired by tap, African dance, Latin dance, and martial arts. What awaits Vicki beyond those doors was an ‘electrifying’ atmosphere made by people ‘of all ages, ethnicities, moving and just living their life’. Speaking to Carmel Smith of Londondance.com in 2015, she reminisced about how ‘everyone was just being free in themselves’.
‘I remember this lady who was at least 60 years old twirling all over the dance floor, she was on the chairs, up against the wall and on the floor, people had to jump and dance out of her way because she was coming through! In that moment it hit me that this dance I was falling in love with, house dance, was much more than just a style of dance, it was a culture, a way of life.”
Although her timidity at the time holds her back, swathes of strangers turned friends by their common love of house get her dancing and joining in the freedom of expression. ‘The love, the support, the encouragement was incredible,’ she added. ‘In that moment I grew with confidence and my feet did not stop moving for the rest of the night. That night I was baptised on the dance floor and it changed who I am as a woman and artist.’
There in that club, her story begins. An awakening into an innovative artist. And what was to come on her return to London would spark her first groundbreaking and pioneering steps into the world of hip hop theatre.
‘Our Mighty Groove is a theatre clubbing experience’
Founding Uchenna Dance in 2009 after her life-changing trip, Vicki set out to create her first work retelling that very same experience: Our Mighty Groove.
Our Mighty Groove is an immersive and interactive dance theatre production with a promise to ‘empower you to let go and LIVE YOUR LIFE on the dance floor!’. Premiered in 2013 at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells, it set out to bring club Sin Sin and its electric atmosphere to the London stage. The audience stood and freely roamed to replicate that ‘night out’ feeling. And among them, five female club-goers and divas (Habibat Ajayi, Sheila Attah, Shanelle Clemenson, Mademoiselle Ginger, and Jessica Larsh) grab the limelight with their intricate footwork, high energy arm flicks and swings, and bold body-bending poses. The audience are left to watch in awe as well as join in with the company’s signature dance styles: house, waacking and vogue, fused with African and contemporary dance.
Waacking (formerly known as punking), created in the LGBT clubs of Los Angeles during the 1970s disco era, is distinguishable by wrist and arm swings, posing, and femme expressiveness. Vogue, recognised by its picturesque model-like poses grew out of the Harlem ballroom scene of the 60s to 80s, and was also danced by New York’s LGBT communities.
In Our Mighty Groove, these styles are brought together and honoured for both their history and their impact on Vicki. This wasn’t the first immersive theatre piece, nor was it the only to centre dance styles formed by LGBT communities. But it was unique in its platforming and embracing of these styles originating from communities historically not welcomed in formalised and institutionalised spaces such as traditional theatres. This blending and respect of such styles and forms is even more poignant when the history of hip hop culture, street styles, and clubbing culture is understood. Created outside of formal institutions. Used for socio-political commentary and to protest injustices, while celebrating communities and upholding joy through struggle.
Vicki also makes it a case to centre and uphold women in this piece. Just like she was made to ‘feel like Janet Jackson’ in her career defining New York moment. In the same interview with Londondace.com she says, ‘It is important for women and girls to be confident in their skin and bodies. Especially in a time where we are force-fed a one-dimensional theme of what beauty is… My daily mantra is think fierce, be fabulous, and live free spirited.’
How radical then, to bring these histories, artforms, and styles together. Putting first the joy, humanity, and lived experience of people needing uplifting. Ensuring the audience are every part of that feeling rather than observers of it.
‘Igbokwe blurs the boundaries between spectatorship and performance [..], but also taps into some of the immense pleasures of the clubland experience… Someone who is shaking up audiences in this manner is really one to watch out for’ – londondance.com
The Legend is Born:
‘My work is for people, my work is accessible’
Vicki has held her 2008 experience tight, recalling how she walked out of that club feeling empowered. She felt on top of the world and desperately wanted others back in London to experience that. That was her calling. To bring empowerment through joy and uplifting to her audiences in her work. And so she did. First with Our Mighty Groove and to greater heights with her next and most renowned work: The Head Wrap Diaries.
It’s a cold September night in 2016. People of all ages and ethnicities file in to the growingly busy foyer at The Place theatre in London, programme and drink in hand, chatting away about the experience to come. At a glance, there appears to be more Black people than is usual at such a theatre. Littered among the casual jumpers, jeans, and jackets are some donning traditional wax prints from their native countries, others the pan-African dashiki. It’s clear many like me have come because of a cultural connection.
The Head Wrap Diaries is a funny and uplifting dance-theatre show set in a hair salon. It explores the relationship between people and their hair by centering femininity, beauty, culture, and sisterhood. The opening is arresting. Three women (Shanelle Clemenson, Sheila Attah, and Habibat Ajayi) appear on their knees, forehead to floor, head wrapped in wax print cloth. They unwind their spines and head wraps alike, crawling backwards from stage left to right, leaving a trail and large tapestry of patterned wax print. This imagery ties hair to history, Afro hair to African diasporic history.
The stage transforms into a hair salon, two chairs fixed at opposite sides of the stage, with one being kept company by several other seats lined up at the side. Nearby, three stands prop up wigs, Kente cloth, and different types of pattern shirts and wraps. A large screen upstage, on the opposite side, holds projections of different Black female hairstyles and portraits. The performers shapeshift into different characters and scenes at the audience’s vocal relish. A mother exaggeratedly combs her daughter’s hair, aunties recount hair-related stories of their youth, and salon stylists break into debates about how best to keep Afro hair – short, permed, and when covered by a wig. All these moments are intertwined with detailed, energetic, and highly technical choreography in Uchenna Dance’s styles established since Our Mighty Groove. Waacks, struts, cat walks, and intricate footworks return with a fierce force.
Vicki stays radically true to her ethos to educate, empower, and entertain. Still placing the audience first. At one point in the performance, a select few audience members are invited into the salon to sit on chairs stage left. Those chosen are quite shy. Maybe even more so than Vicki in New York. But just like on her transformative night, these people are taught to let go and embrace the moment. To cheers and encouragements from the performers and audience alike, they are taught how to head wrap. And the result is a communal celebration of the achievement.
In traditional seated shows, the audience are rarely vocal. It’s the enforced etiquette after all. Yet in her pursuit of placing our experience first, the building was transformed into a cypher of sorts. The stage became the centre of the circle, and we the audience active spectators for all 60 minutes of the performance: cheering, clapping, whistling, and incredibly attentive to every movement and spoken word.
‘I wanted the audience to come in and feel like they’d gone on a journey of self-discovery, of learning about others, and a shared experience with [different] people.’ – Vicki Igbokwe
‘making people feel good about themselves is number one priority’
We often think of a legacy as a posthumous thing, bestowed in a dying breath, and left for another to carry. We might even think of a person or organisation. But I think it is a living contemporary thing. Legacies are actions, beliefs, moments, and stories that impact and influence. Club Sin Sin’s legacy is Vicki Igbokwe and her evangelising about her experiences of house, waaking, and vogue since. And Vicki’s growing legacy is her ability to centre joy and empowerment in all she does. It’s clear in Our Mighty Groove, it’s clear in The Head Wrap Diaries, and it’s clear in her most recent endeavour Pod – a show which also brings to life partying, dancing, and getting lost in house music. Just like Vicki in her life-changing experience.
As well as being the creative director and choreographer of Uchenna Dance, Vicki works as a coach, facilitator, and movement director. She has toured several times nationally, appearing at Sadler’s Wells, The Lowry, Pavilion Dance South West, and DanceXchange to name a few. She has taught internationally, notably at the esteemed Senegal based Ecole des Sables, and is also a trustee for One Dance UK, the UK dance sector support organisation.
With her track record and experience, she should be heralded as a UK hip hop and dance theatre pioneer. Her growing legacy continues to be written.
Featured image (top): Uchenna Dance: Hansel and Gretel. Photo by Foteini Christofilopoulou
Isaac Ouro-Gnao is a dance artist, multidisciplinary creative, writer, poet, and freelance journalist. He participated in the Total Theatre Artists as Writers programme 2020.