Dancing Diana: Boogying to the rhythm of success
What you need to know:
- The group, YAWA (Youth Accosted with Arts), a pioneer professional dance group in Western Kenya, majored in contemporary dance, a fusion of traditional dance with others like ballet and jazz.
- It was an unpopular dance in the country back then, and it actually cost them a spot at the top during the national competitions on three occasions.
- Diana says the dance that she has very much come to like was misunderstood as a genre, as judges leaned heavily upon what the crowd wanted or what was on trend at that time.
Five, six, seven, eight! The count to the eighth beat, just like for most dancers, is a rhythm Diana Odhiambo is well familiar with. She dances to every beat and enjoys every move.
Diana is the third born in a family of five siblings, all lovers of arts, and she says their greatest pastime activity growing up was dance. At their local church, they had at one point all enrolled in dance groups, a sign of their great love for dance and music.
“Even though I am the only one who pursued dance to a professional level, our love for dance was immense and we would jump at any opportunity to display our prowess, much to the delight of our parents who supported us,” reminisces Diana, who was born and bred in Kisumu.
She carried on with her love for dance into high school and her attempts to join the only professional dance group at that time were not fruitful. She was forced to complete her studies as passion for dance was not enough. She knew that her education was also important.
“During one of the school holidays, I watched on TV a dance group that was participating in Sakata, a national dance competition,” she recalls and adds that, “Apart from their fancy hairstyles, what impressed me most was their performance style that I later came to learn was called contemporary dance. It felt weird but intense and attractive at the same time.”
After her high school final exams in 2013, she never missed a minute and was fast to audition and start her journey in dancing.
The group, YAWA (Youth Accosted with Arts), a pioneer professional dance group in Western Kenya, majored in contemporary dance, a fusion of traditional dance with others like ballet and jazz.
It was an unpopular dance in the country back then, and it actually cost them a spot at the top during the national competitions on three occasions.
Diana says the dance that she has very much come to like was misunderstood as a genre, as judges leaned heavily upon what the crowd wanted or what was on trend at that time.
Alongside YAWA, Diana represented Kisumu twice at the national dance competition, a feat that only proved her undying love for dance.
In 2014, she emerged third during Season Four of Sakata and in the subsequent year, she managed to get to the semi-finals.
“In between our dance training, I would attend workshops in Nairobi organised by international choreographers in a bid to improve my skills because at the time, there were and still are no dance schools in Kisumu,” she says.
The group also majored in dance productions that touched on thematic issues affecting the society, ones that evoke emotions and start discussions on rarely-talked about topics.
As of 2015, in a space of only two years, during one of their productions titled Hands, Diana had grown to become the dance director, which stands as one of her career highlights.
The group, having grown into a dance company, was now staging productions around the country and beyond. Hands, a project that lasted two years between 2015 and 2016, was staged in various locations in Kenya and Tanzania.
She has since grown to become the assistant artistic director charged with ensuring flawless rehearsals, and securing performances opportunities for the group.
The mother of one also directed and participated in other productions, with the most recent being Hanging Tree-a 2019, a one-hour production that sought to highlight mental health struggles and challenges of female choreographers and dancers. They toured Kenya and Rwanda.
The production had aligned with her desire to tell the stories of women in the dance profession, especially having juggled between studies, motherhood and her dance career. She was now able to advocate for female dancers in the highly competitive industry.
Apart from dance, the trained journalist also seeks to fuse communication and dance to tell women stories effectively.
She has since produced her first solo production, Thin Line, a nine-minute production that focuses on the thin balance that women encounter in balancing obstacles and commitment in dance.
“My solo was driven by the need to create a voice to raise the struggles of my community. Women of colour need not only be seen, they need to be heard,” she says of the piece that sought to demystify society-established stereotypes about women dancers and choreographers.
Thin Line was first performed in 2021 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in a virtual show during the Dancing Feet Aduwa festival – Kisumu's premiere contemporary dance festival that she founded alongside her colleagues.
“I have since developed the solo and will be performing it at the Dance Life festival in Nairobi later on this year,” said the 29-year-old.
She decried the fact that YAWA group, which offered her the stepping stone into the realm of dance, is no longer as active as it was since most members have moved overseas where dance is a bigger deal.
“However, we still come back when needed to do productions. I am currently in the process of developing a multidisciplinary dance practice that combines technical and aesthetic African dance forms while telling stories of women,” she says of her continued passion for telling women stories.
Her artistic director saw her passion for contemporary dance and urged her to apply for the Diaspora Africa Training, a three-year programme for 30 dancers drawn from Africa and diaspora at the Ecole des Sables dance academy in Senegal.
“I was hesitant at first that I wouldn't make the shortlist of 30 but I did apply and I am way past my first year,” she says.
She and her colleagues are the recent awardees of a fund by Goethe institute who are offering a three-week contemporary and traditional dance residency in Kisumu, where she will take part as a teacher.
She hopes for a Kenya that will demystify the stereotype that you have to live in specific cities in order to make it in the dance industry. She also hopes to someday see dance being granted its deserving space rather than be viewed as showbiz and mere entertainment.