Sam Ibanda: Spreading the passion for Ugandan contemporary dance

Sam Ibanda describes himself as a performer. The different facets of his career can get confusing it seems but for him, ‘performer’ will do just fine.

From the light in his eyes as he prances, one can see that this dancer cum actor cum singer is on a roll. The sinews on his back ripple as he goes through the motions during acts. The muscles jump as he leaps this way and that on the dimly lit stage. He takes charge of the situation and takes his audience captive to boot.

By Steven Tendo

Some observers have crowned him one of the best contemporary dancers from Uganda. That could be an exaggeration, but with an audience mainly international and always looking for the next best thing from Uganda, such comparisons are not surprising.

Dancer and performer Sam Ibanda.

Contemporary dancers from Uganda have had to work really hard to get noticed. It has meant taking the rich culture of storytelling from the different people groups of Uganda and distilling it into the fluid motions on the stage of the National Theatre.

Hopefully, there is a light at the end of the tunnel as with the case of Sam Ibanda.

“Currently I am working on several projects,” he tells Startjournal. Latin Flavour Uganda a dance project which is every last Wednesday of the month at the National Theatre at 7pm is one of those projects. He is also actively producing music, which can be found on iTunes.

“I continue to sing with Sarah Zawede at The Heights every Wednesday night,” he explains.

The young dancer, still in his twenties, says he enjoys all the strands of performance he is involved with. To him, dance is related to song and to acting. “Every performance requires an artistic mind, creativity, discipline, patience, freedom of expression, lots of hard work, and most of all, an interested audience,” he offers when we sit down to pick his brain.

Exuding dance

Here is a young dancer who seems to have surmounted the perils of the trade in Uganda. At least from his outward demeanor, that is. On a given sunny afternoon when offstage, he will be the one with earphones or the one who will be beat-boxing silently to a song. And his whole body will be in dance mode.

He confesses he is almost always performing because he feels music and dance both define a big part of him. Quite overdramatically, he quips: “I can’t imagine life without them, I would feel voiceless since they are channels that allow me to express myself.”

Ibanda is known for his doubling in styles as diverse as Cha Cha, Rumba, Samba and Salsa. He has also ventured into Hip-hop and contemporary dance. Like many in his trade, he exhibits an insatiable interest in more than one style.

Latin Night at the National Theater, Kampala, October 27th 2010.

Looking for the elixir

Though his voice is a strong addition to any track and his musical offerings can be described as commendable, Ibanda is mostly known as a dancer. It is here that the real character in him is let loose, unbounded.

Like many idealists, this is understandably not something they want to come to terms with. He believes he can express himself in any art form there is.

Born in 1982, Ibanda only followed his heart’s desire. Dance came almost naturally. From his time in school where he would go out to the club to dance, it metamorphosed into a passion he had to exhibit to others.

At the time he asked himself why he had to pay to dance yet he could do it for free and even get people to pay to watch him dance.

Many years later, the dancer has had his hand in many arts pies; a part in the American Hollywood award winner The Last King of Scotland, and recently, in the critically acclaimed documentary film on the life of John Akii Bua, Uganda’s first Olympic gold medalist. He has also worked with Ugandan director Carol Kamya.

His forays onto the stage have helped to round his understanding of the performing arts. He has been an important actor in a number of plays with the Obsessions, a theatre company.

His time with the Keiga Dance Company can also be viewed as a stepping stone. With Keiga, Ibanda toured Europe. In 2009 he saw different cultures up-close. Here he performed in cities like Copenhagen.

In 2006, Ibanda had recorded a duet song with Suzan Kerunen, a female world music star from Uganda.

According to Ibanda, his dancing is mostly self-taught. For his skill in contemporary African dance, it is thanks to his association with Jonas Byaruhanga.

Byaruhanga and a few other dancers introduced Ibanda to the magic of dancing. Ibanda believes his participation in several workshops in Uganda and elsewhere has been particularly important for the development of his craft.

“I have danced with groups as diverse as the Obsessions, Latin Flavour Uganda, Maisha Dancers and the Lynch Company (a Danish dance outfit),” he explains his versatility.

Seeds of a dancer

Working with the Obsessions helped bring his style to the world. The productions of the group being mostly musicals, the leading man was offered the chance to show what he could do. And he did wow his audiences with the occasional twist here as he adlibbed and a serious dance routine there.

Ibanda’s successes provide a lesson for those contemplating a career in dance. He started out as a small boy just out of high school with the desire to dance. He dared to dream and to take his dream to the world. He believes it is now paying off.

And it should; dancing takes most of his time. This includes weekends. “I perform every week and rehearse almost every afternoon at the National Theatre,” he says matter-of-factly. By the way he says it one gets that this is not a complaint.

He also teaches Salsa and contemporary African dance. There is a thirst for Latin dance in Kampala and Ibanda is happy to teach the fans as he does with Latin Flavour.

Unlike many others in his trade who lament about the ignorance of the media about contemporary dance, this dancer believes awareness is growing. “Those who have seen my work and appreciate it continue coming to my performances and bringing more spectators which keeps me motivated. And social media has done a lot too.”

Spreading passion

And the growth of art appreciation in Uganda, which includes the understanding of dance, has been a great help. Even without the traditional media where artists cry for attention, the public is coming out on their own nowadays.

People in the business like Ibanda’s constantly rely on those who take art as a serious addition to social life. There are those who understand that this is a source of livelihoods and therefore hold the artists to high standards, not accepting any slackness.

So does he ever feel like his is a thankless job?

“No. To me, just one person makes a difference when they do acknowledge contemporary dance. Otherwise I know there are people that are grateful for this contribution.”

It is no secret, though, that for long contemporary dance existed in Uganda but was viewed as an abstract pastime for those with the time on their hands.

Dance is a passion worth pursuing for the likes of Ibanda. It is also an avenue for national expression without necessarily resorting to violence, he believes. The time might be now for this to take root in the national psych.

National burden

In the past, poets and dancers and other visionaries could not easily speak about social ills. Many of the brightest minds, dancers and playwrights left the country for exile. Today, dancers and musicians can join the national debate.

This does not stop the usual bottlenecks of a nascent industry from popping up though. There are not enough resources and funds are usually limited. There could be a stubborn insistence of the public to hanker for the simpler forms of the arts preferring not to tax their intellects.

“Some people underestimate the power of dance. I am really sorry that it is like that. If and when dance is taken for a livelihood and a media more communication will be entertained,” he laments. This is slightly at variance with his outward persona of optimism and we ask him about it.

Uganda has more than 50 tribes. Each of these has a dance that defines them. It is from this rich pool that dancers like Ibanda can create great dances to weave into contemporary routines.

Other dancers have introduced traditional dance into their patterns to great effect. Ibanda has learnt well that when he travels out to present to an international audience, he will have to be original. Contemporary dance from Uganda must be truly an identity.

It turns out this dancer is still on the upward curve. There is a lot to learn and to achieve. With only a few dance schools and a virgin template to populate, Ibanda and his ilk have their work cut out for them.

Steven Tendo is a Kampala-based journalist with an interest in the arts.

1 thought on “Sam Ibanda: Spreading the passion for Ugandan contemporary dance

  1. I am pleased to be reading an article with a dance art form outside of the traditional.

    I grew up and studied in Uganda up to Makerere University MDD department before performing with The Ebonies and That’s Life Mwattu. I moved to the UK to do more arts and cultural studies and I have been working in the arts and cultural sectors since then.

    I am currently a Director of a dance organisation in the uk called ADAD – Association of Dance of the African Diaspora and I would like to connect with Ibanda to share his experiences with other artists working with various dance forms from the African Diaspora. We hold festivals national and international and we would like collate perspectives of dance in this context.
    Please visit our website for more details.
    Many thanks for you article.

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