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Kariamu Welsh, D. Arts (1949-2021)

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Umfundalai's Progenitor

Kariamu Welsh, D. Arts (1949-2021) was an artist, choreographer, and scholar of African Dance. Author of several books including Hot Feet and Social Change African Dance and Diaspora Communities, African Dance an Artistic, Historical, and  Philosophical Inquiry and The Africa Aesthetic, Welsh’s scholarly research illuminated the cultural salience of African dance traditions as she championed Black expression as a viable movement practice for training the dancing body.  As a product of the Black Arts Movement, her experimentation with African textiles, African American gesture, and African Diasporic dance traditions gave way to her formation of Umfundalai, a contemporary African dance technique that she described as “holistic and body-centric.”  Umfundalai, which loosely translates as “essential“ in Kiswahili, relies on the premise that African dance lives wherever African people reside and dismantles the geographical borders of Africa’s continent as the sole place where contemporary expression can emerge from an Africanist aesthetic.  She referred to herself as Umfundalai’s progenitor because she asserted that it did not come from her but rather through her from the ancestral world. 

Dr. Welsh attended what is now the University at Buffalo earning a bachelor’s degree in English in 1972 and then a master’s in humanities in 1975. In Buffalo, she was the founder and director of the Black Dance Workshop and she co-founded an Afrocentric cultural organization called the Center for Positive Thought. In 1980, she travelled to Zimbabwe Southern African with support of a Fulbright Fellowship and became the first Artistic Director of the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe.  Her research on Zimbabwean dance resulted in a dissertation that earned her a D. Arts in dance and dance education in 1993 at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University.

Dr. Welsh was a Professor Emerita at Temple University (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) where she served on the African American Studies and Dance faculties for over 35 years.  She was the director of the Institute of African Dance, Research, and Performance and her own professional dance company, Kariamu & Company: Traditions (K&C), a performance entity that not only showcased her artistic work but also demonstrated how Umfundalai could tool contemporary choreography.  K & C served as a community that inculcated current Umfundalai teachers and practitioners.  Welsh’s seminal work, Bokolafini, a dance she originally mounted on students from the University of Arts (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) won her the Gulgenheim Fellowship in 1997.  Along with her teaching responsibilities at Temple University, Dr. Welsh also taught at the New Freedom Theater.  Freedom Theater’s intensive Training Program provided Dr. Welsh, talented with young, skilled dancers whose talents served to further develop Umfundalai movement vocabularies.  During this time, she also mounted her invocative choreographies on several professional dance companies including Philadanco!, The Seventh Principle Performance Company, The Berry & Nance Dance Project, and Chuck Davis’ African American Dance Ensemble.

In 2021, the American Dance Festival posthumously awarded Dr. Welsh the Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching.

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