In most of this chapter I am concerned with historical methodology as applied to traditional dance in West Africa but the perspective from which it is written is anthropological. The use of the personal pronoun ‘I’ is an acknowledgement that the cornerstones of anthropology, fieldwork and ethnographic writing, are reflexive practices and, in some senses, autobiographical. 1 By ‘traditional’ dance I am referring to local forms which are said to belong to the cultural fabric of the people in question. 2 Moreover, while what I write is based mainly on my knowledge and experience of dance in the Nigerian context, much of it is relevant to other areas of West Africa that have comparable colonial pasts and where the local cultures are also largely constituted through discourses and practices which bypass the written word (though today not the radio and electronic media).
To speak of West African dance is in fact a misnomer. As has been well documented (Blacking 1983: 89; Grau 1983: 32; Kaeppler 1985: 92-4; Middleton 1985: 168; Spencer 1985: 140; Williams 1991: 5, 59), the ethnocentrically European term ‘dance’ is not applicable to systems of structured human body movement of non-European peoples, who have their own terms of reference for conceiving of such activities. For example, in southern Nigeria most ethnic groups have a generic term which includes dance among other activities which are construed as intrinsically sociable and usually rhythmic. The Bini word iku refers to ‘play’, ‘dance’, ‘games’ and the Igbo egwu to ‘play’, games, ‘dance’, ‘music’, song. In Bini the word for ‘to dance’ is gbe, which also denotes ‘to beat’, while in the related Isoko language igbe means ‘dance’. The specific meaning of each of these expressions is context-dependent. Individual dances do, however, have their own names. The generic term may provide the basis for these names as in the Igbo compound egwuugegbe (‘mirror-dance’), dances may be named after the accompanying drum as in the Bini emaba or esakpaede or may have emerged for other culturally-specific reasons. While acknowledging these complexities, the word ‘dance’ is used throughout the chapter; the indissoluble connections to music and play which exist in the word ‘dance’ for many if not all West Africans should not, however, be forgotten.