African dance studies pioneer Kariamu Welsh dies at 72
Growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 1950s, Kariamu Welsh was enchanted by older girls and their double Dutch skipping rope movements. When she was old enough to join us, she quickly excelled, jumping and weaving with the best of them.
Years later, in the 1970s, when she became an innovative choreographer of Afrocentric dance, she incorporated this kinetic sidewalk poetry into her work, noting how daring improvisations of black girls skipping rope in a street in Brooklyn were inspired by traditions born in Africa.
Dr Welsh, an early African diaspora dance scholar who was professor emeritus of dance at Temple University in Philadelphia and artistic director of her own troupe, Kariamu & Company: Traditions, died on October 12 at her home of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She was 72 years old. The cause was complications from the atrophy of several systems, his son MK Asante said.
In the 1970s, when she was a young dancer and choreographer living in Buffalo, NY, and performing with her own company, Dr. Welsh developed a dance technique she called Umfundalai, a neologism of her own making that she defined as “the essence”. It was a vocabulary of movements inspired by the dance traditions of the African diaspora as well as the iconography of African art – and a bit of double Dutch.
She would continue to teach technique at the doctoral level. students, undergraduates and teens in community centers. At the time, in the wake of the civil rights movement, black studies programs were only just beginning to take hold in universities. Dr Welsh was one of a new cohort of artists and academics who used dance to tell stories about the black experience.
Dr. Welsh performed a dance to Coretta Scott King, to music by Nina Simone and recordings by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. In 1976, while performing at a festival in Manhattan, Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Le Times wrote with admiration of Dr. Welsh’s “deeply felt work” and his artful “dramatic structuring and models”. (At the same festival, she also admired the work of another young black dancer and choreographer who became more famous, Bill T. Jones.)
A later Welsh dance, “Ramonaah,” was around the day in 1985 when Philadelphia police, from a helicopter, dropped an improvised bomb on the headquarters of MOVE, a black separatist group, causing a fire that killed 11 people and destroyed 61 row houses. . Yet another book, “The Museum Piece,” explored how black Americans were objectified.
“Mama Kariamu was not only one of the first to create a dialogue around African dance in the United States,” said Thomas F. DeFrantz, founding director of the Collegium for the dance of the African diaspora and professor of dance and African-American studies at Duke University, using a familiar honorary title for Dr. Welsh, “but she has trained legions of black dance scholars and performers.” I’m editing an article right now that was written by one of his students. His work as an artist and scholar is deep and broad. She made a path for many of us.
C. Kemal Nance, assistant professor of dance and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and assistant artistic director of the company of Dr. Welsh, of which he was once the principal dancer, was a student in engineering at Swarthmore College when he took an Umfundalai course with Dr Welsh. This forced him to change his specialty for dance.
“What makes Umfundalai so valuable is the way he takes the Africa I lived through every day as a black North American and places it in the African continuum,” Dr Nance said over the phone. “The cheerleader in my hometown of Chester, PA, the Dutch double jumpers, the drill crew walking and dancing in the living room with my mom on” The Freak “- Sister Sledge’s 1978 disco classic – “is part of this. Dr Welsh changed the landscape of our perception of African dance by showing that what we do with our bodies is worth studying.
Carole Ann Welsh was born September 22, 1949 in Thomasville, North Carolina, and raised in Brooklyn. Her mother, Ruth Hoover, who was a single mother for a time, worked for the telephone company. After Carole had her double Dutch revelation, she joined her high school’s modern dance club. When she wasn’t chosen to dance in the works of her classmates, she recalls in an essay, her teacher told her, “The only way to make sure you’re in a dance is to invent it yourself and get started. “
She attended what is now the University of Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, where she earned a BA in English in 1972 and then an MA in Humanities in 1975. At Buffalo, she was the founder and director of the Black Dance Workshop. , later known as Kariamu & Company, and co-founded an Afrocentric cultural organization in a former post office building. Called the Center for Positive Thought, it had programming like martial arts and dance as well as a museum of African American art and African antiques.
While in Buffalo, she met her future husband, Molefi Kete Asante, who had been director of the Center for Afro-American Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, one of the first black studies programs in the United States, and at the time chairman of the communications department of SUNY Buffalo.
In 1980, the couple moved to the newly independent Zimbabwe, each with a Fulbright scholarship. Dr Asante was invited to form a corps of African journalists, and Dr Welsh was invited to found a national dance company. In a phone interview, Dr Asante described how Dr Welsh developed his choreography during their journey across the continent.
“She would see a Ghanaian woman squat down, and it became the Ghanaian squat,” he said. “Watching the Zulu dancers, she saw the Zulu Stomp. And she looked at African art and textiles and also took pictures of them. She took these ancient postures and symbolic movements from different ethnic communities and brought them to life. She was one of the most creative choreographers I have ever known.
In 1984, Dr Asante became chairman of what is now Temple’s Department of Africa and African American Studies, and Dr Welsh joined the department as a professor the following year. She became a professor in the dance department in 1999 and was director of the Temple’s Institute for African Dance Research and Performance before retiring in 2019. She has authored and edited several books on African dance, including “African Dance: An Artistic, Historical and Philosophical Inquiry” (1996).
Dr. Welsh received her doctorate. in Dance and Dance Education in 1993 at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, New York University. She was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1997.
Besides her son, MK, she is survived by another son, Daahoud Jackson Asante; one sister, Sylvia Artis; one brother, William Hoover; and six grandchildren. Her marriage to Dr. Asante ended in divorce in 2000.
Dr Welsh took the name Kariamu in the early 1970s. “She had become more aware of her African heritage,” said Dr Asante, “and she wanted to identify with it.”
Like Umfundalai, Kariamu was a word of her own creation, which she defined as “one that reflects the moon”.