Kariamu Welsh, Pioneer of African Dance Studies, Dies at 72
Growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in the 1950s, Kariamu Welsh was enchanted by the older girls and their double Dutch jump rope moves. When she was old enough to join in, she quickly excelled, bobbing and weaving with the best of them.
Years later, in the 1970s, when she became an innovative choreographer of Afrocentric dance, she would incorporate this kinetic sidewalk poetry into her work, noting how the bold improvisations of Black girls jumping rope on a Brooklyn street drew from traditions born in Africa.
Dr. Welsh, an early scholar of African diaspora dance who was professor emerita of dance at Temple University in Philadelphia and the artistic director of her own troupe, Kariamu & Company: Traditions, died on Oct. 12 at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C. She was 72. The cause was complications of multiple systems atrophy, her son MK Asante said.
In the 1970s, when she was a young dancer and choreographer living in Buffalo, N.Y., and performing with her own company, Dr. Welsh developed a dance technique that she called Umfundalai, a neologism of her own making that she defined as “essence.” It was a vocabulary of movements inspired by African diasporan dance traditions as well as African art iconography — and a bit of double Dutch.
She would go on to teach the technique to Ph.D. students, undergraduates and teenagers at community centers. At the time, in the wake of the civil rights movement, Black studies programs were just taking hold at universities. Dr. Welsh was part of a new cohort of artists and academics who were using dance to tell stories about the Black experience.
Dr. Welsh made one dance about Coretta Scott King, set to the music of Nina Simone and recordings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1976, when she was performing at a festival in Manhattan, Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times wrote admiringly of Dr. Welsh’s “deeply felt work” and her astute “dramatic structurings and patterns.” (In the same festival, she also admired the work of another young Black dancer and choreographer who went on to greater renown, Bill T. Jones.)
A later Welsh dance, “Ramonaah,” was about the day in 1985 when the 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 rowhouses. Still another work, “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, a founding director of the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance and professor of dance and African American studies at Duke University, using a familiar honorific for Dr. Welsh, “but she trained legions of Black dance researchers and performers. I’m editing a piece right now that was written by one of her students. Her work as an artist and scholar is deep and broad. She set a path for many of us.”
C. Kemal Nance, an assistant professor of dance and African American Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the assistant artistic director of Dr. Welsh’s company, of which he was once a principal dancer, was an engineering student at Swarthmore College when he took an Umfundalai class with Dr. Welsh. It compelled him to change his major to dance.
“What makes Umfundalai so precious is how it takes the Africa I was living every day as a North American Black person and places it in the African continuum,” Dr. Nance said by phone. “The cheerleading in my hometown, Chester, Pa., the double Dutch jumpers, the drill team marching, and the dancing in the living room with my mother to ‘Le Freak'” — Sister Sledge’s 1978 disco classic — “is all part of it. Dr. Welsh changed the landscape of how we think about African dance by showing that what we do with our bodies is worthy of investigation.”
Carole Ann Welsh was born on Sept. 22, 1949, in Thomasville, N.C., and grew up 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 epiphany, she joined the modern dance club at her high school. When she wasn’t chosen to dance in her classmates’ works, she recalled in an essay, her teacher told her, “The only way to make sure you are in a dance is to make it up yourself, and put yourself in it.”
She attended what is now the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, 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, later known as Kariamu & Company, and she 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 antiquities.
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 was chair of the communications department at SUNY Buffalo.
In 1980, the couple moved to newly independent Zimbabwe, each on a Fulbright scholarship. Dr. Asante was asked to train 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 had expanded her choreography as they traveled the continent.
“She would see Ghanaian woman squatting, and that became the Ghanaian squat,” he said. “Watching Zulu dancers, she saw the Zulu Stomp. And she looked at African art and textiles and drew imagery from that too. She took these ancient symbolic postures and movements from different ethnic communities and put them on the stage. She was one of the most creative choreographers I’ve ever known.”
In 1984, Dr. Asante became chair of what is now the department of Africology and African American Studies at Temple, and Dr. Welsh joined the department as a professor the next year. She became a professor in the dance department in 1999 and was the director of Temple’s Institute for African Dance Research and Performance before retiring in 2019. She was the author and editor of a number of books on African dance, including “African Dance: An Artistic, Historical and Philosophical Inquiry” (1996).
Dr. Welsh earned her Ph.D. in dance and dance education in 1993 at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University. She was a Guggenheim Fellow 1997.
In addition to her son, MK, she is survived by another son, Daahoud Jackson Asante; a sister, Sylvia Artis; a 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 conscious 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 who reflects the moon.”