Born in Nigeria and raised in New York City, Nneka Irobunda has always lived her life embedded in and enriched by Black culture. A choreographer by trade and a dancer at heart, Nneka also studies the social aspect of dancing and its impact on not only the body but also the mind and spirit, as well as their connection to each other.
Merging various styles of African dance, Jamaican dancehall, house, and heels techniques, Nneka is an innovator who has created her own style of dance that she’s branded and named Afro Beastilettos.
Nneka’s star-studded resume doesn’t prevent her from hosting regular dance classes and events in her adopted hometown of NYC, around the U.S, and abroad. She’s worked with many artists, including Sean Paul, Wizkid, J. Balvin, Mr. Vegas, Missy Elliott, Jeremih, and Cardi B (whom she notably performed with during the 2019 Grammy Awards). Nneka has also been a featured dancer at the historical John F. Kennedy Center in D.C., which is deemed a high honor within the dance community.
We recently caught up with Nneka after her return from teaching several Afro Beastilettos classes in Europe, including Switzerland and Portugal. See our interview with her below, as we discuss African-American social dances and how Nneka believes they are influencing today’s TikTok creators. On her own TikTok page, Nneka often showcases how music, dance, fashion, and culture are fused and blended, yet she finds that these elements are coherent and speak the same language across the African diaspora, regardless of location.
In addition to TikTok’s influence, she discusses the importance of her travels to Europe (and soon the continent of Africa) to spread dance, how her degree in psychology helps her understand dance as a form of therapy, her influences and dance muses, plus the music that gets her family and friends up to dance together!
So many of the most iconic dance moves come from Black culture. In honor of Black Music Month, Pandora is highlighting those moves, from The Charleston to the Swag Surf. Explore the evolution through the decades on Black Music Forever Radio, only on Pandora.
How do you feel your style of dance reflects who you are and the merging of the African and American cultures?
“My style of dance has everything to do with my environment. My movement takes from vogue, street jazz, hip hop, which are all American styles and different West African dance styles. Nigeria and NYC are both very dense, populated and fast-paced breeds and harness so much culture, so much history and hustle. My style of dance incorporates that fusion of culture, history and energy.”
Your Twitter bio (@delacyn) states you have a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and dance. What’s the social connection between the two for you?
“I do have a BFA in psychology and dance. The relationship between dance and mental health has been studied for a while. At a basic level, when you dance, you release joyful hormones or endorphins, which can help decrease stress and anxiety. At a deeper level, through my studies and exploration, I have found that dance and movement exploration can help heal, reteach and preserve culture and aid in identity formation. My theses were ‘Identity Formation: Personal and Shared Narratives of Black Women through Movements’ and ‘The Effect of Mood on Persuasion: The Role of Music and Dance in Mood Induction’. Both my studies explored the intersectionality between the Black experience, music, dance and healing. I wholeheartedly believe that there is power in music and dance, it’s proven through history. It is easily an alternative road map for therapy. I think eventually dance and music therapy will be so key in our healing process, especially in indigenous communities where therapy and the foundations of psychology have been considered taboo and have been rooted in a lot of racist ethics.”
For someone that doesn’t know, can you describe the elements of Afro Beastilettos and how you decided to brand this style of dance as your own?
“Afro Beastilettos fuses dancehall, different African dance styles, specifically naija street style (konto), ghana azonto, ndombolo, and afro house and heels technique. Dancers get to explore different diaspora roots, get in touch with their feminine flow and explore identity through movement. Afro Beastilettos isn’t necessarily a style … yet, it’s a movement. Eventually it will become a style with rules, technique and foundations readily available to teach and learn for future generations. I consider Afro Beastilettos a movement because I created it during a time where I was training in all these different dance styles, but I felt like they didn’t resonate with my body. I wanted to understand my body more. Movement exploration and dance was the only thing that could guide me to get back into myself and body. I was in the studio consistently, birthing this quality of movement, taking from all my experiences and knowledge pool. And then decided to take a leap of faith and teach a class once I was ready. That was 2016. 2017 I had my first NYC class. Afro Beastilettos as a brand came from my community. My community showed up for me when I first introduced this quality of movement. I did not want to call it Afro Heels or AfroBeats Heels. I wanted it to resonate with the mission, which was unleashing your inner beast through African movements and heels, hence Afro Beast-stilettos (Afro Beastilettos). The brand is all about metamorphosis. Afro Beastilettos is a safe space where people come together to not only connect culturally to Africa through the music but also to connect with each other and their bodies through African and diaspora movement. This class is a safe space that encourages exploration, fun and provides a healthy challenge. There is a metamorphosis that happens when people take my class, they unleash in a safe space, they are free to be who they want to be and they leave with tools to grow at home.”
With the emergence of Black creators, especially in the dance community on TikTok, do you feel they’ve motivated more people to join actual dance classes offline?
“Interestingly enough, I feel like it has motivated more people to want to partake in different cultures, however I feel like it has created the opposite effect. More people are taking classes online and/or taking pieces of what they can get from TikTok and sometimes teaching it offline. It has created more teachers and less students in my opinion.”
As a dancer and a student of dance history, do you see a trend of new dances “starting” on TikTok or are dances still starting in clubs then moving to social media?
“There is a trend of people wanting to start their own dances on TikTok. However, dance never starts on the internet. All the trends that you see have their origin offline. For example, Jersey Club, rocking your hips, those were started in the streets, within the community. It’s so important we understand that these platforms showcase and share what is already there but sometimes not seen or recognized, especially when it comes to indigenous people and our cultural dances. Dances are still starting within communities, in the streets, in the park, in the house, with your friends, in the club, at parties and then showcased. A lot of these African dance moves you are seeing are started within parties, within the streets of these countries and then showcased on these platforms as a way to spread knowledge and show the new moves.”
There’s often a lot of debate when it comes to the origin of dances on TikTok. Do you think there should be patents or copyrights on dances or is that out the window when it comes to social media? How do you believe creators can celebrate the originators of a dance’s culture?
“Social media is a beautiful space to share but can sometimes dilute the worth of the art of dance. Dance is a business and an art. Dances and dance moves are just as innovative as any other invention or medicine. If yoga can be patented, so can our dances. I believe that dancers should patent and copyright their dances and dance moves. However, we have to do our research. Whoever is on that board has to have extensive knowledge and really be for the preservation of the culture. A lot of dances derive from other dances and so forth, and it can get very unclear on who did what first. But, as indigenous people, it is so key to preserving the culture to have ownership and rights over our own creations. Too often are our creations stolen, misused and misidentified.”
Looking at your background, it seems dancing has always been a way of life and expression for you. How did you decide that you would make a career out of dancing?
“Dance has always been a way of life. It’s embedded in my culture, it’s been a part of every major or minor event in my life and it has been my therapy and safe space to explore my identity and more. It was inevitable that I was going to be a dancer. I danced at every party as a kid. I was an innate mover. I was blessed to be around teachers that encouraged me to take dance seriously growing up. I fought the idea of fully being a dancer for a long time because of societal norms surrounding being an artist. In addition, I always wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to help heal people. But when I started really studying dance, and seeing how opportunities were coming my way and finding stability and flow with income and different jobs, I realized it is absolutely a possibility to make your passion your work. I realized that I was healing and helping people find aspects of themselves they may have felt like they lost through my classes.”
On your Instagram page (@delacyn), you showcased a peek into a dance class you recently hosted in Lausanne, Switzerland. What was the reception you received in Switzerland and across Europe? What has been your favorite class destination so far? And why do you think it’s important for you to host dance classes outside of the U.S.?
“Switzerland was amazing! I recently went on my second European/UK Afro-Beastilettos tour. My first tour was in the summer of 2019. The students in Europe are eager to learn and understand because there is a lack of information about different African dance styles in their countries. My movement being more new, there is even more of a lack of information. My favorite dance class destination is Switzerland, and Portugal is a close second because the culture there is unmatched. It’s so key to host dance classes outside of the U.S. because our culture transcends past just us. It’s called the African diaspora for a reason. I’m also big on accessibility. Not everyone has the means to travel to NYC to take my class, so I make it a mission to travel and share and build my dance tribe and community. Next stop is an Africa tour, I’m out to the motherland.”
As a choreographer, where do you look for inspiration? Do you have a muse?
“Watching old videos of dancers and music videos and traveling. I love watching Missy Elliott videos, I love watching different cultural videos. I’m like a YouTube dance encyclopedia. I love watching Black, African dance legend documentaries and dance videos. Traveling and getting the opportunity to learn first hand is my favorite way to get inspired.”
In celebration of Black Music Month, what is the one song that you can put on at a family event, wedding or cookout that you know will get everyone out of their seats?
That’s tough because it really depends. If I’m with my African friends and family, it’s ‘Igwe’ by Midnight Crew or ‘Essence’ by Wizkid. If I’m in NYC at a cookout it’s ‘Get Down On It’ by Kool & The Gang or ‘Candy’ by Cameo.
Also in celebration of Black Music Month, which artist do you believe is the best natural dancer, past or present?
“I don’t have a best or top three in dance. But, I believe traditional Igbo and Congolese dancers, Katherine Dunham, and Lola Falana are some of the best dancers I have seen.”