African dance makes new inroads through popular styles like Shaku Shaku, Gwara Gwara, Azonto and Black is King, thanks to performers such as Tanzanian-born Petit Afro who is based in Europe, 22-year old Nigerian Papi Ojo, Ghana's Dancegod Lloyd, and others.
Petit, who lives in Spain and the Netherlands, has a passion for afro dance choreography. He spoke to The EastAfrican's Beatrice Materu on a recent trip back to his home country.
Who is Petit Afro?
I am a professional afro dance choreographer, born in Tanzania. I’ve lived in The Netherlands for 13 years and moved to Spain about a year ago. I teach afro dance to children and teenagers.
When and how did your dance journey begin?
Well, dancing has been my passion. I remember I used to enjoy watching dancers in my aunt’s band — Twanga Pepeta — during rehearsals and stage performances.
I admired dancers like Super Nyamwela, Congolese musicians like Werrason and Fally Ipupa. I watched their moves countless times and I learnt from them.
One time I went to a party in my Dutch neighbourhood. I was amazed at how well the people were dancing, and later came to learn that they were from different dance studios. I was interested enough to join one of the studios.
Formally, my journey started in 2012 when I won an ‘Azonto’ dance competition. My dance teacher was told about it and wanted to make me a teacher of African dance.
At first I refused the offer since I was still new in town and was yet to master the Dutch language.
However, one time I agreed to cover for another teacher, and I taught about 18 children some moves. The next thing I knew, I had a class of 40, all interested in learning Afro dance.
So that was it, I became an afro dance choreographer.
Currently, I have two classes, one in Holland the other in Spain. But I also conduct workshops in different parts of the world, like here in Tanzania and in Uganda.
Any other awards won so far?
Yes, one from Everybody Dance Now, a Dutch TV dance competition, in 2015.
What's the most popular video you have made?
There was this dance video I did with Angel, one of my students, in 2017. We danced to Rihanna’s song Work remix. That video made me realise that afro dance has officially gone global.
The video went viral, and at that time Angel was just eight years old; people were astonished how a little girl could do African dance moves so well. I think that’s the secret behind the video's success, plus the set and how I directed it.
What skills have you learned as a dancer that help you in choreography?
Throughout my journey I have learned that it doesn’t matter how talented you are — if you are not disciplined enough, you won’t succeed. Working with children and teenagers from different backgrounds in a new environment made me learn how to communicate with people, understand people in general and in a better way.
I have also learned to have an entrepreneurial mindset; yes, dancing is what I like to do. But how do I make money out of it, how do I earn a living? That mindset is what helps me make plans, set goals, and seize opportunities.
If I want to become a dancer today, what advice would you give me?
Find time to do what you are passionate about. Go to school, get your certificates, but also find time to do what you like, sacrifice other less important things. Find time, because there is always time.
What have been your greatest challenges in your dance/choreography career so far?
In day-to-day life in Holland, and even Spain, you may not notice racism as such. But my afro dance videos are watched globally and at times I receive really negative racist comments especially from the US. Comments like "why are you teaching Europeans our African-American culture?" It is hard to explain to a six-year old child that those comments have nothing to do with them.
Parental competitiveness can also sometimes be a challenge. Each parent brags about how talented their children are and insists that they should be the spotlight in class. But I can’t put every child in the spotlight; some are yet to master the moves.
What is your favourite place in East Africa?
Dar es Salaam. You go to suburbs like Masaki where the affluent and expatriate population live and you get that western vibe.
Then you go to Buguruni, Kariakoo, Manzese and you get that true Swahili vibe.
This article was first published in The EastAfrican newspaper on January 23, 2021.