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.

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Julianna D. Photography, courtesy of Abreu

Although Rudy Abreu is currently JLo's backup dancer and an award-winning choreographer—his piece "Pray" tied for second runner-up at the 2018 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and a variation of the piece made it to the finals on NBC's "World of Dance"—he still finds time to teach. Especially about how he hears music.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dance Teacher Web
Courtesy Dance Teacher Web

Dance students aren't the only ones who get to spend their summers learning new skills and refining their dance practice. Studio owners and administrators can also use the summer months to scope out new curriculum ideas, learn the latest business strategies and even earn a certification or two.

At Dance Teacher Web's Conference and Expo, attendees will spend July 29–August 1 in Las Vegas, Nevada learning everything from new teaching methods to studio management software. And as if the dance and business seminars weren't enough, participants can also choose from three certifications to earn during the conference to help expand their expertise, generate new revenue and set their studios apart:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

James Payne, director of The School of Pennsylvania Ballet, starts class each day by asking students how they feel. "If they're collectively hurting, and I know that the day before they were working hard on something new, I might lessen the intensity of the class," he says. "I won't slow it down, though. Sometimes it's better to move through the aches and get to the other side."

A productive class depends, in part, on how well it is paced. If you move too slow, you risk losing students' interest and creating unwanted heaviness. Move too fast and dancers might not fully benefit from combinations or get sufficiently warm, increasing their risk of injury. But even these guidelines may differ depending on the students' age and level. Good pacing is a delicate balance that can facilitate mental and physical growth, but it requires good planning, close observation and the ability to adapt mid-class.

Keep reading... Show less
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Our dancers' parents want to observe class, but students won't focus if I let them in the room. I've tried having them observe the last 10 minutes of class, but even that can be disruptive and bring the dancers' progress to a halt. Do you have any advice on how to handle this?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Running your own studio often comes with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. After all, you're the one who teaches class, creates choreography, collects tuition, plans a recital, calls parents, answers e-mails, orders costumes—plus a host of other tasks, some of which you probably don't even think about. But what if you had someone to help you, someone who could take certain routine or clerical tasks off your hands, freeing you up to focus on what you love?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Derek and Julianne Hough via @juleshough on Instagram

Here at Dance Teacher, we LOVE a talented dance family. Something about parents and siblings passing their passion for dance down to those who come after them just warms our hearts.

While there are many sets of talented siblings across all genres of dance, ballroom seems to be particularly booming with them.

Don't believe us? Check out these four sets of ballrooms siblings we can't take our eyes off of. Their parents have raised them right!

This is far from a comprehensive list, so feel free to share your favorite sets of dance siblings over in our comments!

Keep reading... Show less
Courtesy of Roxey Ballet

This weekend, Roxey Ballet presented a sensory-friendly production of Cinderella at the Kendell Main Stage Theater in Ewing, New Jersey, with sound adjustments, a relaxed house environment and volunteers present to assist audience members with special needs. The production came on the heels of three educational residencies held at New Jersey–based elementary schools in honor of Autism Awareness Month in April.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Shared via Dance Teacher Network Facebook

I'm a part of a popular group on Facebook called Dance Teacher Network which consists of dance teachers across the country discussing and sharing information on all things dance. Yesterday morning, I spotted a photo shared in the group of four smiling young boys in a dance studio. And I couldn't help but smile to myself and think, "Wow, I never had that...that's pretty damn amazing."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Marr

When Erica Marr discovered ballroom dancing in her late teens, she instantly fell in love with the Latin beats and strong drum lines that challenged her musicality. After shifting her focus away from contemporary and jazz, she began studying with elite ballroom coaches in New York City and quickly earned a World Championship title in her division.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Thinkstock

Q: I own a studio in a city that has a competitive dance market. I've seen other studios in my community put ads on Instagram and Facebook for open-call auditions in April, long before most studios have finished their competition season and year-end recitals. Is this fair?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox