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.

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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