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Celebrate African storytelling with UNGANISHA 

By Sheroog Kubur, February 16 2023

Black History Month isn’t only about learning Black history, but celebrating it. That’s why UNGANISHA, the multimedia dance and theatre production, is the best way to celebrate the month. It will be returning for its first in-person production in two years. The collective of performances is telling the story of an essential part of African history — dance. Put on in collaboration with the Black Arts Development Program, UNGANISHA is the perfect way to explore the diasporic roots of beloved performance arts today. 

Unganisha is the Swahili word for connected, one of the most spoken languages in all of Africa,” explained Wunmi Idowu, founder and director of Woezo Africa, the organization behind the show. “What we’re trying to do is connect the histories of Africa.” 

The story being told reflects the history of each particular style of dance. It features a multimedia format, using film, theatre and dance as different aspects of the story it’s telling. Each element pays homage to the pan-African tradition of storytelling, relying on the performance aspect over the spoken words. While the show features different mediums, Idowu emphasizes the role of dance in the production. 

“I have been dancing since the age of three and I have never heard of why or what constructed specific dance styles, like jazz and hip-hop,” she explained. “So I did some research and found that they were the African diaspora trying to preserve their culture.”

The dance styles featured in this year’s iteration of UNGANISHA are hip-hop and tap, both forms of dance born from the African diaspora. Tap was created after percussive instruments were banned for slaves, so they resorted to creating their own rhythm. Hip-hop was directly inspired by traditional African dance styles mixed with contemporary African-American culture, creating a crossroads between the movement of the motherland and the lived experience of African-Americans. 

“The reason we have the three components is that it’s all part of storytelling, giving the intricate details and cultural origins,” Idowu explained about the different storytelling mediums. “And we love a good story.”

All components feature participation from participants of the Black Arts Development Program, a program designed to foster creativity and artistic spirit for Black youth across Calgary. The most recent iteration was the dance program, featuring five professional dancers teaching their respective styles, including traditional Ivorian dance, afro house and dancehall. UNGANISHA will feature performances choreographed by M’Kayla Kongnetiman and Sho-Tyme for the tap and hip-hop styles. 

“Africa has contributed a lot to society and a lot of people don’t know because of a lack of information,” Idowu said. “Such a production will create a social change in the way people understand Africa.”

Above all, UNGANISHA is a celebration of Blackness, both diasporic and domestic. It doesn’t only look backwards at the history but also at the Black arts community within Calgary. The production is a chance for artists to share their craft — putting the ball back in the court of its creators.  

“Having this type of production allows these artists to come forward,” Idowu explained. “The audience can take this information into their communities and share the onus of who created this art form.”

UNGANISHA takes place on Feb. 25 at Contemporary Calgary. Tickets start at $11 and are available on the website.

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