Remembering Dr. Kariamu Welsh, Umfundalai’s Progenitor

November 8, 2021

This is more than an obituary. It’s a thank-you, a tribute, a song.

On Tuesday October 12, 2021, scholar, choreographer, educator and Umfundalai progenitor Dr. Kariamu Welsh, passed away from complications due to a neurological disorder at her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at the age of 72.

Raised in Brooklyn, New York, and the eldest daughter of Ruth Hoover, Welsh was exposed to art through museums and operas in the park by her mother, reports The Inquirer. Her family was by no means wealthy, but Welsh eventually earned a full scholarship to the University at Buffalo, and later earned her Doctorate of Arts in dance history from New York University. Welsh danced, worked and taught in Buffalo and Zimbabwe, serving on the faculty of Temple University in Philadelphia as a professor and as artistic director of Kariamu & Company: Traditions, before retiring in 2019.

The recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Choreography Fellowship, the Creative Public Service Award of NY, a 1997 Pew Fellowship, a 1997 Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and three Senior Fulbright Scholar awards, Welsh was the founding artistic director of the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe from 1981 to 1983. Widely published, she edited seminal works on Afrocentricity and Black movement traditions, including her well-known 1997 publication Umfundalai: An African Dance Technique. Umfundalai, which means “essence” or “essential” in Kiswahili, infuses and expands the theory and practice of contemporary African dance and houses a movement vocabulary that incorporates steps, rhythm and sensibility from a range of African dance traditions. It has been taught for over 50 years.

In an interview with Laura Katz Rizzo for Movement Research’s Critical Correspondence, Welsh described Umfundalai as an open and fluid technique. She explained that it’s a technique whose “viability depends on the contributions of others.” This, she expressed, was because the African diaspora has so many dance forms, aesthetics and traditions still to absorb, there is always something that can be added to the technique. It was for this reason she never called it the “Welsh” or the “Kariamu Technique.” But within its practice, Welsh insisted on maintaining the groundedness, the polyrhythms and the articulation of the pelvis and hips.

Yet her contribution to dance and the academy was never taught to me in my dance studies. Even now, looking at dance history syllabi from different degree-granting institutions, African dance forms are thrown into a broad category called “World Dance,” and how students get to engage with them is sometimes peripheral. The absence of discourse around Umfundalai and Welsh’s influence reveals what and who the curriculum in higher education value. As we continue to talk about racism, oppression and exclusion, African dance forms continue to be an inclusive movement experience.

They welcome you and invite you to stay. African diasporic forms are quickly (although some would argue not quickly enough) becoming more integrated into the higher education curriculum, and Umfundalai is one of those forms that would undoubtedly contribute to the curriculum, helping to redirect any misconceptions dance students may have about how a dancer should look as it celebrates all body sizes, giving permission to each body to speak many movement languages. Like ballet and modern, the Umfundalai class structure starts with a warm-up and transitions to center and then across-the-floor work. The warm-up usually starts with the head articulations, which is called the “Four Points of the Universe,” though it is not uncommon for some teachers to begin with the Nanigo, a ritual that serves to build a sense of community among the students and the instructor. This ritual offers students the opportunity to see others as citizens of a liminal space that an Umfundalai dance class provides. Regardless of teacher, Umfundalai classes will most likely begin with the dancers performing the Dobale (a Yoruba term that literally means “to prostrate the ground,” which is a gesture of respect), acknowledging the importance of rhythm and music in African dance.

Welsh’s life’s philosophy existed at the intersection of her knowledge of dance, the African diaspora, community, storytelling and kindness. In her movement classes, your dancing body was a blank canvas awaiting color, and Welsh encouraged effort by coaching a physicality that was detailed by doing. With careful instructions, she planted many seeds—she shaped, carved, molded. A teaching force, Mama K, as she was called by most of her students, taught with generosity and openness, welcoming offerings from others. That’s not to say she didn’t teach with specificity and exactness, but she believed that the framework should have room to breathe, with some limitations.

Conjuring up my own story of Dr. Welsh, I think of how we met. After leaving graduate school, I was unsure of what was next, so I decided to do a mass mailing, sending out CVs and choreography reels to over 50 colleges and universities across the country, hoping to connect with dance departments looking to hire new faculty. A few responded saying they would keep my information on file, but no correspondence left me hopeful. A couple weeks later, I received an email from Welsh, the then-chair of the dance department in the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University. She introduced herself, telling me about a visiting professor/resident guest artist position that would be available in the spring of 2011, detailing the compensation and asking if I would be interested. With not so much as a phone call, she made space for me (and later I would come to realize that’s who she was, a space-maker). While I had apprehensions about the seriousness of the job offer, I eventually moved along with the hiring process and visited Philadelphia to view apartments. On my visit, I walked into the dance offices and Welsh, whom I had never met in person, hugged me like I was her long-lost son.

Our bond has never been broken.

Dr. C. Kemal Nance, a master teacher of the Umfundalai technique who saw her most recently, conveyed she was a bit slower but still spirited. In my mind’s eye I could see Mama K basking in her subtlety, and it made me think about her grandness. I wasn’t with her at the time of her transition, but I imagine that before she drifted, she paused, looked around and nodded softly with a smile, taking the time to see those she left behind, still dancing.

Now a dancing ancestor, Dr. Welsh is survived by her mother Ruth Hoover, brother William Hoover, sister Sylvia Artis, sons MK and Daahoud Asante, as well as six grandchildren. Her legacy lies fervent. And for those of us who knew her, we continue to clutch to her voice, her stories and her time in our presence. —Gregory King