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Animated Edition - Summer 2020
The practice behind the ‘practice’
What is this elusive thing we call our 'practice’, our 'voice'? Do you find it, or does it find you? How do you grow it, with whom and for how long? Is it a case of a flash of inspiration or commitment over time? And when is it ready to pass it on? Vicki Igbokwe, choreographer, movement director, facilitator and founder of Uchenna Dance tells us about her own journey and the value of taking the time you need and savouring and learning from each step you take

It all started in a nightclub in central London in 2006. It was the night that would change the course of my life forever.

There was a group of Korean dancers getting down on the dancefloor, moving in a way that was just electrifying to me. I had not seen anyone dance like this before. There was something so graceful and strong in the way they moved. Their musicality was effortless, their groove mesmerising and intense. I was so excited by what I was seeing, I wanted in. I had to be a part of it. I decided to go and join these dancers.

They were in a cypher (a dancer circle) and I was standing amongst them waiting for my turn. My moment came. I grabbed it with both hands. I was in the cypher trying to emulate the steps I had just seen and, of course, failed big time. What was I thinking? Get out of the circle, woman! But these dancers were gracious and kind, showing me love despite my obvious lack of understanding for what I was trying to do. I asked one of them, ‘What is this dance style?’ and they said, ‘House Dance’. I had no idea what they were talking about.

That night I was on YouTube until the sun came up and I had to get ready for work. I knew then I had found the dance style that was going to help me become the artist I wanted to be.

You see, that year, after six years as a dancer, choreographer and teacher with Impact Dance, led by Hakeem Onibudo, I left Impact to work out what I wanted to do next. I remember different people asking me, ‘When are you going to start your own company?’ My response would be, ‘When I have found my Artistic Voice.’

What I meant by that was that I needed to find dance styles that really resonated with me. Styles that excited me, styles that inspired me to push the boundaries of my own capabilities. I didn’t want to rush to be part of the crowd. I wanted to take my time and emerge as an artist when I felt equipped to do so.

As a dancer, I was training in street dance, popping, locking, contemporary, a little Krumping and was failing miserably trying to be a ‘b girl’. My superpower (back then) was that I could learn any piece of choreography you gave me (except for tricks, I could never do the flips etc!) very quickly. And while I loved performing these styles as a dancer, I knew they would not serve me as a choreographer.

In 2006-7, I made a successful application to ADAD’s (Association of Dance of the African Diaspora, now part of One Dance UK) programme called Trailblazers which allows artists to invest in their creative practice. I answered a series of questions, created a budget, a timeline and thought about how I would share the information and knowledge I acquired with others. My project focused on going to New York to train in House Dance for a week and then, on my return, spending five days in a studio with dancers exploring and playing with all I have learnt.

The summer of 2008 - New York is mind-blowing. I’m taking in the senses of the city, its vibrancy, its culture, its pace; navigating its transport system, understanding how to move around on foot – and how to order food. I am making connections with artists based in New York and those, like me, who had travelled from different parts of the world, to train there. I am adjusting to the teaching styles, the mix of people in any one class. Unlike my experience in London at that time, I am sometimes in class with people in their seventies and eighties who are pushing me to be great!

As I am training in House, I quickly learn about Waacking and Vogue; I am now truly complete! The combination of these three styles fills me with pure joy. I feel honoured to be taking class, training with artists and pioneers including Brian Green, Tyrone Proctor, Benny Ninja, Ms Peters (Alvin Ailey School) and Daniel E Kelley (Future).
I start to understand the impact that culture, race, class, gender, sexual orientation and social economics has on these dance styles and its people. Most of the teachers I am training with make it clear these dances are social/club dances and I must visit the underground clubs to truly understand what I’m learning. The studio is where I am learning the steps, but the club is where the artistry is unleashed, discovered and empowered.

I return to London and go into a week of exploration with five artists: Carla Trim-Vamben, Theo Alade, Delene Gordon, Sean Graham and Asha Jennings-Grant. I don’t have a clue about what I am doing. I am looking at my notes from New York, playing music I had bought while out there. Dissecting it all with these artists, talking about my experiences, answering their questions. It is a glorious week with a group of people I trust and respect. This time in the studio allows me to play, explore teaching and I discover at the end of it that I have created a short piece that shows the movement vocabulary I am getting to know.

A few weeks later we are presenting this short piece at the Siobhan Davies Studios as part of an ADAD event where artists are presenting works in progress. There are people from the dance industry and some friends and family of the artists. One of the standout observations is that right now there are two worlds occupying this space (in relation to the piece I have shared) - a contemporary movement vocabulary and the House Dance vocabulary. The informal challenge was set: how could I bring these two worlds together to become something new, unique and exciting?

That was a really defining moment for me. I knew then that I wanted to create my own company to help me achieve this.

On the 1st of January 2009 my company was born. At this point, I didn't even have a name for it. I gathered friends who wanted to perform. I wanted to be a choreographer. Perfect match. We would meet Sunday afternoons 3 till 6pm at Chisenhale Dance Space - then go for a cheeky Nando’s afterwards! 

Those times in the studio were, again, a lot about playing and exploring. I was using very traditional contemporary warm-up techniques then launching into this new way of moving for choreography and creating routines. The two didn't correlate. My dancers wanted to warm up in the style, essence and energy of the vocabulary I was trying to explore.

So… I listened. I stopped thinking about trying to create and went back to the beginning, thinking about the foundation of this movement vocabulary I knew was within me.

For the next three months I would focus on understanding:

  • What each style brought (House, Waacking, Vogue)
  • The similarities between them
  • The uniqueness of each style
  • How my African dance experience and Contemporary dance training complimented these styles
  • What the body would need to warm up in these styles
  • What I would want from dancers that I would be working with.

I started to build exercises. I would come into our training sessions with two or three exercises created during the week then spend three hours teaching them, getting feedback from the dancers, adjusting, teaching them again, getting more feedback and writing the exercises down.

It was a truly valuable experience to take this time and, in the end, I spent the whole of 2009 training myself and the dancers in this way. I explained to them that I was in no rush for us to perform. I wanted to really understand the forms I was working with. I wanted to build a strong foundation for this movement vocabulary. And I wanted to build a technique class that I would eventually be able to use in my practice with anyone that I was working with.

During these 12 months, we trained religiously every Sunday. We had three moments to share what we were doing publicly - two were work-in-progress opportunities, in London and Birmingham, and one performance opportunity in collaboration with Alesandra Seutin / Vocab Dance. But that was it. The rest of the time I spent developing this vocabulary.

While in this training mode I was working as a Creative Projects Manager for East London Dance. I left the organisation in May 2009 after five years of working there. It became apparent (to me) that I needed to create space in my life to really discover who I was as an artist. I had saved some money from this job and also picked up some teaching work to support me for the rest of 2009. It wasn’t easy but I made it through.

Looking back now, taking my time to develop my practice was the absolute best thing for me to do. I could have rushed signing the company up for performances, putting work out there and making choreography, but I would have been doing this prematurely. Taking the time to develop my movement practice, my teaching of it, understanding its benefits etc is what gave me my foundation as an artist today. Taking the time to research into the cultures, the social and economic impacts and surroundings of the people who grew up on these styles was very important to my understanding and the way in which I used these styles now. The ability to take a performer who has never trained in House or Waacking or Vogue and give them the basic foundation that enables them to find their artistic voice for our collaborations is priceless!

I should also say that these styles take dedication, repetition and a high level of skill in the same way that Ballet, Contemporary and Bharatanatyam (as examples) do. Quite simply, I would not be able to make the shows, teach the workshops and invest in training every performer I work with, without the time I spent developing my practice. 

I now have a technique class that can be taught in the same way you can learn the Graham, Dunham and Ailey techniques and I use this in everything I do.

It took me FOUR years to really hone and develop my movement practice and technique class to a point where I felt truly confident to teach it. I was teaching it throughout this time to my company members, but it was about four years before I really understood how I could use this technique class with the wide variety of people I work with - from children and young people to professional dancers/actors, dance enthusiasts, dancers/actors in training and older people. In addition to these four years, I spent five years in informal dance training, three years in formal dance training, six years as a dancer and five consecutive summers training in New York, all of which prepared and guided me on my journey to finding my artistic voice.

Because of me taking this time to really understand, develop, dissect, build my craft and artistry, I can walk into any environment with a range of people and a range of abilities and create an experience on their terms - the Uchenna / Igbokwe Technique. This happens in a safe space that encourages them to be, as the company by-line promises - empowered, entertained and educated.



Trust Your Journey Poem

It is okay to take your time
it is okay to move slower than everyone else around you
it is okay to not follow the crowd
it is okay to not know what you're doing and say you don't know what you're doing
it is okay to trust your journey even when you can't see where you're walking but there is faith and your belief in something you are trying to create
it is okay to not know what you're doing and listen to your tribe,
listen to the people that you have around you,
hear what they say,
take the feedback digest it,
keep the things that resonate with you
keep the things that are important to you
and throw the rest away
it is okay to work organically and then build your structure, build your framework
it is okay to test ideas, to try things out,
to create an exercise and then go that's wrong pull it apart and start again
it is okay to not be perfect
actually don't be perfect
perfection is a myth
authenticity is what you're looking for
being your true original self is what you're looking for
trust in your ideas
trust in your vision
especially when no one around you can see YOUR VISION is okay

trust in YOU.



Photo credits from top

  1. The Head Wrap Diaries, Uchenna Dance. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou
  2. Vicki teaching an Empowerment Workshop, Aditi retreat
  3. Grace Lourie, Uchenna Dance Summer School
  4. Vicki workshop at Magpie Dance
  5. Vicki Igbokwe. Photo: John Cassidy, The Head Shot Guy
  6. Hansel and Gretel, Uchenna Dance. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou.

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Animated: Summer 2020