Soft, Strong Voice - Lauren Bies, USA

Long Branch, Azeke- Intercultural relations provides even to the novice a general understanding that from ones earliest recollections, some form of the performing arts exists, to entertain, teach or to motivate. In the rich cultural country of Nigeria, religion and culture mesh the two halves of the whole to complete one beautifully spoken ambassador of dignity, Dr. Mercy O. Azeke who epitomizes a nation of women who embrace the performing arts, while maintaining personal dignity without compromising their femininity or contributing to gender inequality.

Dr. Mercy O. Azeke, Ed.D, Dean of the Center for Student Success at Monmouth University, Long Branch, New Jersey, (U.S.A.), is Nigerian by birth, now resides with her husband and three daughters’ as an American citizen, in New Jersey (U.S.A.). Dr. Azeke had come to the United States in the 1980’s on her husband’s student visa, and with no friends or extended family to tend to, she sought counsel from her father by telephone while he resided in Nigeria. His wisdom sent her armed with her Nigerian Bachelor’s degree, straight to Temple University for a graduate study admission application. Years later, Dr. Azeke, subsequently graduated with a master’s and doctorate degree as well as a career rich in education and publishing as an accomplished writer.

A song, or a dance taught to us by a parent, or a teacher, usually are our early recollections few of us can ever forget. As we enter adulthood, and if we reside in a western culture, media drives our consumption-on-demand and, our artistic indoctrination relies on automaticity. If the work performed is negative, it can wound the core of who we are. Countries, such as Nigeria, co-mingled in culture and religion provide for their people the opportunity to question the harmful effects of a negative artistic performance, which affects harm to our essential selves as women. Nigerian women have fostered the means to preserve this dignity to self. They have achieved this while maintaining their femininity and in the midst of it, have been able for generations to recognize and be comfortable in their own sexually. They need not make excuses for ill-fated behaviors, resulting from ill-fated choices presented before them.

Dr. Azeke reflects upon her earliest memories of Nigerian women in the Performing Arts in an interview held at Monmouth University on Mays 5, 2011. From her earliest recollections dance has been a present art form utilized in Nigerian culture for celebratory purposes such as festivals, weddings, coronations, births, religious holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, national days of remembrance, and even funerals. Dr. Azeke refers to Nigerian Dance as “high-life.” Not the sort of high-life defined as in the European Classicism, but a highlife indicative of fun yet very dignifying-dancing to the rhythm of musicians like Fela Ramsom Kuti, Sony Ade, Victor Uwaifo, Obeneza Obe, Sonny Okosun to mention a few. In the rural communities there are cultural dances, “The sort of dance you would see during Marti Gras in New Orleans” and other varied forms based on the particular tribe.

But what of other forms of dance? The western dances are available in clubs, bars, although mainly for the young adults and not what you will in the aforementioned festivities listed above. Apparently, dance for young girls was and still is not, considered academic enough to be chosen in a scholastic activity or as a future career choice based on one’s exceptional talent, or just a desire to perform.

As girls in Nigeria grow to become women, dance is still not encouraged as a career choice. Could we now suppose that current gender inequality issues that affects the African nations is apparent now? Dr. Azeke explains, no. It is the nature of dance environment that causes the breakdown of culture and religion. In effect, dance, signifies the deterioration of a women’s femininity, and destroys the true nature of her being comfortable with her sexuality by revealing too much bare skin, and possible exposure to drugs and alcohol. How could dancing contribute to the breakdown of ones moral compass? Dr. Azeke explains it in this manner “It matriculates into every aspect of society when you don’t maintain your dignity. Your dignity is what you hold yourself up to.” No one is forcing Nigerian women to believe in this manner. Theirs is a comforting thought to realize that for Nigerian women who value their feminine side, they can feel extremely sexual wearing a long skirt, all the while knowing they have maintained their dignity. In fact, Dr. Azeke is quick to point out, that for Nigerians, you cannot separate a women’s religion from her culture.

Nigerian history has its roots deep within religious missionary instruction. The Nigerian people learned to read and write from the Bible, and learned their lessons of decency born from religious aesthetics too. Dr. Azeke recalls much stage plays where at the curtains closing, audience members would cheer for either the Christian, or non-Christian side. Though Nigeria is predominately a Muslim country, the early missionary Christian teachings remain today. In the painted art form, women are strongly encouraged to partake. So to in sculpture, ceramics, music and the theater have Nigerian women found success as artists. However, in respect to dancing, it is the general trappings associated with dance, which Nigerian women find objectify-able.

To sit and speak with Dr. Azeke and listen to her soft, musical accent, one needs reminding that this highly intelligent and accomplished woman, could perhaps anger a public with her talk of dignified dressing and church-like behavior. Therefore, this playwright must pose this question. Should Non-Western women avoid forms of artistic expression that compromise their dignity and ability to remain true to their culture and religion to avoid exploitation? Alternatively, as in Western Cultures, should women welcome all forms of artistic interpretation and lose their dignity…, how remiss. Women are exploited in the West. Everyday.

© All rights reserved 2011 by Lauren Bies.

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