The Captivating Dancer Behind Afrobeats’ Biggest Stars
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her moves are here to stay.
As a rule of thumb, Nigerian parents are melodramatic, and in November, Iziegbe “Izzy” Odigie’s mother found another opportunity not to disappoint. She had accidentally discovered via Facebook posts and WhatsApp chats that her only daughter and the last of her three children had co-choreographed and appeared in an episode of the popular American TV show Empire. “She was screaming, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’” the younger Odigie laughs at the memory. “I didn’t say because I don’t like to share things before they happen.”
Now they’re happening quickly for Odigie, who has been touring the globe, choreographing for the stars and popularizing her own reinterpretations of contemporary dance moves — riding a wave of Afrobeats’ surging popularity.
Born in Brooklyn to a businessman and a nurse, the Nigerian American choreographer was raised partly in her family’s native Benin City from age 3. Even as a toddler, she sought the spotlight. Her mother, Osarenoma Odigie, recalls how Izzy attracted all the attention by joining her older brother’s kindergarten graduation procession — and refusing to leave. In boarding school in Nigeria, she began dancing Western hiphop styles even though kids at school were rocking to galala, a local sound in the late 1990s and early 2000s that was a precursor to today’s Afrobeats.
When she returned to the U.S. to continue her education, jokes about her accent and poise challenged her identity. “When I first went back to Nigeria, I was seen as a foreigner. And coming back, it was like I was standing out again,” she says. “I wanted to go through school without crying every day, so I had to adapt and kind of suppress a little bit of who I was.”
Her mother returned from a trip to Nigeria with a pirated party mix CD and one of the songs triggered the teenager’s reconnection with her roots. The lid had been taken off; her identity had reemerged stronger and a career was born.
In August 2017, a viral video of her acrobatic dance moves outside a Brooklyn subway station propelled Odigie to the spotlight; it also precipitated a five-city U.S. tour that paid well enough for her to donate to a charity working to resolve a water crisis in Sierra Leone. Two years later, her electric performance of the high-octane zanku dance in a monochrome outfit inspired by the Mortal Kombat video game character Raiden broke the internet. This time, it was at a sold-out Apollo Theater concert for singer Burna Boy.
In between those moments, she has also choreographed for other stars of African descent, including Jidenna, Mr. Eazi, Innoss’B, Sho Madjozi, Davido, Moonchild Sanelly, Rema and Yemi Alade. She shares weekly tips on breaking into the industry with her 78,000 YouTube channel subscribers. Still only 24, she is becoming one of the more popular faces in contemporary African dance.
“Female dancers [like Odigie] are the muse of the game,” says Melody Hassan, on-air personality at Lagos’s City 105.1FM. “Eighty percent of the time, Afrobeats artists are eulogizing a woman’s physical attribute [or body movement]. … There is a natural symbiosis between the music and the dancers, almost like one can’t do without the other.”
I just knew this was gonna be big but couldn’t explain why.
In six years, Odigie has gone from high school to teaching classes and judging dance battles during a 10-day tour of Japan. Dance crews in South Korea, Russia and Canada are incorporating into their routines the ukukhasa — a Xhosa and Zulu word for a baby’s crawl — dance, which she created in Ghana but says was inspired by South Africa.
“I feel pride and also a part of me feels scared,” she admits. “I was crazy with my vision. I just knew this was gonna be big but couldn’t explain why. Back in 2014, people were saying Afrobeats is a trend and it would just pass. … Six years later, it’s still a thing, and that’s just like a pat on the back [to me].”
Despite the gradual spread of Afrobeats worldwide, there are persistent challenges for the genre’s dancers. Heavyweights like Beyoncé and Janet Jackson have recently incorporated Afrobeats dance routines, eliciting goodwill from Africans. However, production companies and record labels have stuck largely to hiring dance agencies, not actual Afrobeats dancers — unless artists put their foot down and ask for specific dancers.
“Social media is our structure, our office in a way,” Odigie says. “Because there is no structure for us and African music is not the main sound here … so if I’m working with an artist and something happens on set, there is no union that can stand behind me to sue them.”
The lack of structure has also restricted dancers from making much money, so a good number teach classes as well. Odigie’s Trybe Dance company sells merchandise in addition to her dance classes.
Back in Africa, things are worse. Dancers who have created fanbases overseas “can’t activate them,” she says, because they have a hard time getting visas, and paying for dance classes isn’t common there. Consequently, they have to rely mostly on underpaid music video or concert gigs to make a living, while wading through industry politics and, for women, sexism.
But Odigie, whose first name means patience in her native Bini language, is optimistic about the future. In the interim, she is trying more daring experiments and plans to capture more behind-the-scenes content for her social media fans. She also plans to take vocal classes to “improve my horrible singing voice.”
Her childhood dreams of being a Hollywood actress have been put to the side now. (“I wanted an Oscar; I wanted the most dramatic roles ever.”) Her father, now a local politician, gives practical tips on how to monetize her passion, and her mother, who remains the family drama queen, is just as supportive — even trying to book her daughter to dance at Nigerian weddings.
“I can envisage a very bright and fulfilling future for her,” Osarenoma Odigie says. “She’s a go-getter and she works very hard to actualize her set goals. Honestly speaking, the sky is not even Iziegbe’s limit.”
Perhaps next time she’ll get a heads-up on TV appearances.