Kariamu Welsh is fascinated by the way cultures and people mix and influence each other. To explore this—and perhaps even encourage it—she developed a dance technique. This year, Temple University celebrates the 40th anniversary of Umfundalai, which means “essence” or “essential” in Kiswahili. Built on common aesthetic elements found in dances from many African countries, Umfundalai is a required undergraduate course at Temple, where Welsh is dance department chair. Not only does the class expose students to a wide variety of cultural perspectives, it also forms a common ground for those who arrive at college with different dance backgrounds. At Temple, Umfundalai bridges the gap between bunheads and street dancers.
The class marks its fourth decade at a time when many college dance departments are looking for ways to include a wider variety of students and offer a broader array of dance styles without sacrificing strong technical training. With its mix of demanding technique and cultural authenticity, Umfundalai is designed to welcome dancers with formal training as well as those who have never set foot in a dance studio. “Most of us have two arms, two legs and a body,” says Welsh to explain her conviction that people of all body shapes, sizes and races, those with training and those without, are capable of deeply meaningful movement.
Movements are named, structure is codified and basic historical information is conveyed just as it is in ballet and modern, which makes the technique appealing to dancers with technical backgrounds. But there are also entry points for students without formal training. Umfundalai speaks particularly to those who grew up dancing to African-derived rhythms at home or on the street. This was true for C. Kemal Nance, master Umfundalai teacher, associate professor in the dance program at Swarthmore College and assistant director of Welsh’s company. He was introduced to dance when he took Welsh’s class to fulfill a P.E. credit and found it to be a culturally affirming experience.
Though Umfundalai has been central to Welsh’s work as a teacher and choreographer, she didn’t initially set out to create a technique. While completing her undergraduate degree at the University at Buffalo, she studied with Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, who both encouraged her to delve into a historical and cultural study of African dance. Welsh did more than that. She moved to Africa to study, teach and perform. She eventually founded the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe and served as its artistic director for two years.
Before conceptualizing Umfundalai, she was often asked to teach African dance. Wondering what, exactly, to teach, Welsh turned to her own choreography, through which she had processed her knowledge of various African dances. With the encouragement of Primus and Dunham, around 1970 Welsh began to think of her own body of work as a technique.
The work is a mix of indigenous and stylized elements. “Welsh builds on ageless movements in dances from, say, Nigeria, Jamaica, Guinea or Guyana, to create modern versions that will meet and mesh with her choreographic vision,” wrote dance scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild in a recent article for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
An Umfundalai class includes warm-up, center and across-the-floor work, just as many ballet and modern classes do, but the exercises are imbued with Pan-African movement, music and understanding. For example, the class begins after the drummers enter and the dancers perform the doable, a Yoruba term that means “gesture of respect,” acknowledging the importance of rhythm and music in African dance. The warm-up begins with the Four Points of the Universe, head articulations recognizing the four cardinal directions, and then progresses down through the torso and the legs. And before beginning the center floor work, the teacher may take a few moments for what Welsh describes as “spiritual and inspirational sharing and reflection.”
But perhaps the most positive aspect of Umfundalai—particularly for college students—is that it welcomes each dancer as they are. Welsh instills a positive self-image in her students—and her students are now sharing that message with the young dancers they teach. Saleana Pettaway, who has danced with Welsh for nearly 20 years and teaches dance at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, says the practice helps her students become more dynamic and expressive performers. It challenges them to let go of assumptions of what dance is and how one should look while dancing. As Welsh puts it, “People, African dance accepts you where you are at this exact moment.” DT
Monica J. Cameron Frichtel is a PhD candidate at Temple University. She helped to design, and currently teaches, a race and diversity class in dance.
Photo: Khalilah Ali-El, Dina-Verly Sabb-Mills and Valarie Assamoi in Kariamu Welsh’s The Museum Piece. Photo by Creative Service Photography, courtesy of Kariamu Welsh.