Dance is storytelling through movement - Nabaggala

Lilian Maxmillian Nabaggala uses more of her hands more than her legs  on working as a movement style. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Dance queen. Lilian Maximillian Nabaggala is a dance artist; her style brings together traditional African moves with contemporary, hip-hop, and street dance.

“I am a professional dancer; that is what I do for a living,” Nabaggala will likely tell you if you are meeting for the first time.

Like many creatives in Uganda, she has probably been asked numerous times what she does for a living. And probably when she says she is a dancer, they ask what she really does, and then she has to clarify that dance is what she really does.

Of course, the face of the creative economy has been changing in Uganda for years. Because of music success, being a musician is suddenly not as far-fetched, and thanks to Pearl Magic, being an actor no longer sounds as crazy, but then there is dance.

Technically, it is one of the most misunderstood forms of expression; for many, it is the hobby of all the forms of expression; everyone believes they are a dancer until they have to; many think it is a pastime; and above all, the majority can’t see how one can make a living as a professional dancer.

Lilian Maximillian Nabaggala is a professional dance artist; her style brings together traditional African moves with contemporary, hip-hop, and street dance.

“I graduated like many people, got a job, and then quit to focus on dance. It was tough because eventually everyone looked at me as a time waster, but I had a support system from the people I had met in the business; for family, it was tough; there was a time I wasn’t talking to some of them,” she says.

Choosing dance
She says that many dancers in the business are confused about how to move dance from a passion to a profession. She has walked that journey, and today, she is deliberate about presenting herself as a professional dancer, finding opportunities as a dancer, placing herself in places where opportunities are, and above all, empowering the next group of female dancers on their journey to professionalism.

Nabaggala, over the years, has been part of numerous projects. As a member of Batalo East and as a solo artiste. Many of these projects have addressed different situations, ranging from humanity to colourism to womanhood.
Last year, Nabaggala was on a roll when her dance short film Faded premiered at different festivals in Europe. In Faded, Nabaggala reaches out with a pan-African message that authenticity to oneself is a major step towards self-love, identity, awareness, and self-esteem. 

The film was later presented as a theatrical dance production at the Kampala International Theatre Festival in November, but before that, she had staged a showcase of yet another dance production, Nambi.

Celebrating powerful women
Nambi, the African Sheildmaiden, is a show inspired by African strong women leaders and others who are simply inspirational. The dance production seems to use their influence to celebrate all women, regardless of their position in society. 

Some parts celebrate leadership, while other parts of the show celebrate humanity, such as motherhood.
But none of these are actually spoken, which makes Nabaggala’s vision a wild one. Most dance shows tend to use the aid of spoken word or mixed media such as video or graphics to get their message across.

Not Nambi; the production entirely depends on movement to tackle hard topics, excite, and get its audience emotional at the same time. 

Nabaggala says the production is still a work in progress and will probably keep changing as they keep staging it. 
“It took me a long time to think about what I had to create, but when I thought about how independent women and strong women behave and the fact that I had read about the history of the great Queens of Egypt, Yaa Asantewaa, Dahomey Amazons, and Nzingha, I thought that this related to the women of the now; this gave me an inspiration to create something that can connect to the women of today and how they can be inspired by the great female warriors of Africa,” she says.

But there was more to the production; it was entirely led and produced by women. 
Over the years, Nabaggala has represented Uganda at conferences where most people are simply learning about the idea of being an African dancer.

The productions usually act as an impromptu apprenticeship for the girls she works with, exchanging knowledge on how to put together a portfolio and CV and professionalising their work by asking for contracts.

“I think having a corporate background helped because I knew that if I had decided to treat dance professionally, I needed to look at it as a job. I knew that I had to create a timetable and an invoice; I used the knowledge I already had from my corporate background,” she says.

Nabaggala is passionate about everything dance. PHOTO/COURTESY

For most of the people getting into dance or art, there’s a lack of professionalism, which has affected how they deal with people and how people hire them for work. She says that it is her goal to see many of the girls she has worked with not go through what many artists have gone through.

While working on projects, she takes pride in passing on some of this information to the teams she works with; “at times it is as simple as showing someone how to put together a portfolio or an artistic statement.”

Much as Nabaggala was dancing even when she was in high school and outside school, she says the style that inspired her was breakdancing, and getting to know a community such as Breakdance Project Uganda was refreshing.

“The fact that I was already dancing but did not have a sense of belonging outside school, getting into a society that had dance really inspired me,” she says.

Developing her movements
However, with breakdance being very masculine, she noticed she was losing her feminine side, and that’s how she started learning Latin, which gave her an attachment to her feminine side.

“As time went on, I knew I needed to discover myself; that’s when I learned that I have long limbs. When I got minor knee surgery, since I couldn’t use my lower body, I started learning to work as a movement style. Working then became the love of my life,” she says. Working as a movement style, Nabaggala uses more of her hands than her legs; basically, her upper body does much of the work. She says it is a style that shows how she feels, and of course, over time, she has incorporated it with traditional and contemporary movements.

Nabaggala in a dance show piece. PHOTO/COURTESY

She has conducted masterclasses on her work movements and has worked with universities and institutions such as Codarts in the Netherlands and Auckland University in New Zealand, among others, to create a curriculum around them.

“Academia is good, but also draining, but it gives you a proper path of who you are as an individual, such as  do you understand what your dance is when you write it on paper or is it just about the movement?” she says, adding that she’s in final arrangements to go back to school, this time for dance.

But over the years, she has taken on more roles, such as styling for films and choreography. For instance, she worked on the Sony and Club Pilsner project that was intended to imagine Africa in the future. The result of the project was Midnight Drug, a collaboration between A Pass, Rouge, Fik Fameica, and DJ Maphorisa. 

She, however, decries the lack of respect for dancers as creatives on many mainstream music video sets; for instance, many directors think about them as video vixens.

“Some will not give you a script or rundown on what the video is about because they believe your work is to twerking. Yet dance is more than that; it is storytelling through movement,” she says.

Most of her choreographed work has an element of tradition and urbanity, a combination she says started in 2014 when she was part of the Umoja Flying Carpet festival. She had joined as an urban dancer but noticed she had to do traditional dance.

“It taught me the discipline of loving where I come from. I am forever grateful for being part of this because we have created identities without depriving us of where we come from, and that is traditional dance movements.”