Ghana’s azonto dance goes cheerily global

Some dance crazes last barely longer than the time it takes to flip to another radio station. Others prompt Mexican waves of booty–shaking across borders. Ghana's azonto, in which the dancers mime everyday activities, has taken over dance floors across Africa, Europe and the United States.

Azonto originated among the Ga people of Ghana. Like their apaa ("work") jig, revellers wash, drive or dial phones to the tune of a hip–shaking beat, a jived–up version of –charades. 

"Even old people love it," said Julie Quaye, a 53–year–old housekeeper. "It's the expressive nature of it – you can do anything creative with it." Unabashed, she showed off the latest moves learned from her teenage son, one of thousands who throng to monthly "dance–off" competitions in Ghana's clubs and beaches.

It is not the first dance craze to ripple through West Africa. In Côte d'Ivoire, the bird flu dance – intended to provide comic relief as the virus hit West Africa – rapidly spread to neighbouring Togo and Benin and the bobaraba ("big bottom") prompted a rush for "bottom enhancers" from dodgy market sellers.

But azonto is one of the few to make the leap north to Western capitals, featuring on the clubbing scene from Amsterdam to Paris. Since entering the United Kingdom mainstream this year, Prince William and Piccadilly Circus performers have adopted the foot-twisting bug and it has even invaded physical education classes at schools.

Some see its roots in the snake–hipped performances of Congo's Kanda Bongo Man, but fishing communities such as Jamestown, overlooking the sea in Ghana's capital of Accra, are indisputably its spiritual home. From behind pastel–coloured walls and traditional palace murals the catchy music spills into the streets and is lapped up by passers–by.

On Sundays, some churchgoers practise an adapted version – chrizonto – and enthusiasts can be spied in music–filled funeral processions winding their way down Jamestown's hilly roads. "It's a good way to honour the dead, isn't it?" said Richard Aryee, a pallbearer on a recent Saturday, breaking into step beneath the casket balanced on his head.

International footballer Asamoah Gyan celebrates goals with it, making the dance as much a national rallying point as Ghana's Black Stars team. It has even gone academic. The University of Ghana plans to look into "harnessing azonto for Ghana's socio­cultural and economic development" and has recruited azonto's biggest champion, Sarkodie, who describes himself as a "rapaholic".

"Even the name is crazy," said Accra resident Ramsey Taiwo, who teaches azonto boxercise with his twin brother, Shady, in between starring in music videos. Enthusiasts who want to learn have come from as far afield as Germany, they said.

Earlier this year Kwaku Ageyman, a London–based fitness trainer, was watching music videos with friends who had come back from holiday in Ghana. "Azonto was everywhere. I thought about putting together some of the moves in a fitness class for some of the African ladies who wouldn't normally go to the gym," he said.

The popularity of the class spiralled. Ageyman found himself teaching moves such as "scratch your back" and "hustling" in physical education lessons and hen-night classes.

The dance's popularity has soared in Europe with the arrival of chart–busting Afrobeats hits, a term spanning music from West African dancehall to hip–hop. Nigerian Afrobeats frontman D'Banj was so impressed by one enthusiast's YouTube videos – whose White Boy Azonto! racked up more than a million hits – that he recruited him to perform an azonto jig in his music video Oliver Twist, itself another popular Nigerian dance.

Closer to home, where Afrobeats staples have long lent themselves to a dizzying plethora of dance fads, azonto faces stiffer competition. In Ghana, the amanda, nicknamed "African salsa", is threatening to knock azonto off its perch. However, the craze clearly has wide appeal because it can even be found in Nigeria – although the country's long-running cultural rivalry with Ghana means it is embraced only grudgingly there.

On Lagos's Alpha Beach, to the blare of music from a cellphone plugged into speakers, Jibril Tenney energetically demonstrated current popular Nigerian dances. Azonto did not feature. "[Nigerians] have already had the yahozee, something like our own azonto, so it's nothing special for us," he said.

That did not stop him from leaping into a backward shuffle, startling nearby idlers, when a popular azonto track began playing from the –speakers.

"Is it from Ghana? We play all the azonto tracks by Nigerians," said Alex Kpelle, owner of the chic rooftop De Marquee club in nightlife–loving Lagos. Later, as the packed room erupted over Nigerian wunderkind WizKid's Azonto (Freestyle), he added: "It's like a magic word. Look around, nobody can sit down." – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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