Umfundalai

Khalilah Ali-El, Dina-Verly Sabb-Mills and Valarie Assamoi in Kariamu Welsh's The Museum Piece

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.

Adrienne Bell-Cedeno in Welsh's The Clothesline Muse

 

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.

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

Keep reading... Show less
Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.