Dance professor teaches the importance of African art and culture

Combine pulsating drums, spirited movements and rhythmic dialogue, and you have created the world of Dr. Kariamu Welsh Asante, Temple professor of Dance. Her name, Kariamu, which means “one who reflects the moon” in Kiswahili,

Combine pulsating drums, spirited movements and rhythmic dialogue, and you have created the world of Dr. Kariamu Welsh Asante, Temple professor of Dance. Her name, Kariamu, which means “one who reflects the moon” in Kiswahili, certainly describes the beauty and majesty Welsh Asante brings to African dance.

As a young woman, Welsh Asante was inspired by the cultural revolution of the Black Arts Movement, and credits living in Zimbabwe for two years as an experience that changed her life.

“When I first saw the African dance, it spoke to me. It said something to me,” Welsh Asante said. “And the more I studied it, the more I researched it, the more I traveled and lived in Africa, I found this kind of rich vocabulary that more could be done with.”

In Africa, Welsh Asante found that dance was an integral part of community life.

“Everybody danced, everybody together, and it was just wonderful,” she said.

Transformed by its freedom, power and beauty, she returned to the United States fully committed to African dance.

After coming to Temple in 1985, Welsh Asante founded the Institute for African Dance Research and Performance, with the belief that to understand the dances of Africa, dancers must also know something about the continent.

“You have to know something about the history, the philosophy, the religion, because it’s all intertwined,” she said.

She also created the Umfundalai Dance Technique, which she cites as her most significant contribution to dance. The technique uses traditional African dance movements, which may combine movements of any parts of the body, from the eyes to the toes.

She admits that the holistic technique is extremely difficult, but also notably successful. The method transforms the power of ordinary gestures into art that conveys the rhythm of African culture. From there, she creates contemporary African dance, an evolution that has survived many obstacles.

“This country is not the most supportive in terms of art,” she said. “Then of course, dance is one of the least appreciated arts in this country, and then I happen to be in African dance, which is even lower on the totem pole.”

She cites America’s strong history of racism as the reason African culture is devalued.

“Africa, for a long time, was known as the Dark Continent,” she said. “And we live in a society that doesn’t place a great deal of importance on Africa.”

Despite these barriers, Welsh Asante, whose career spans 30 years, has prevailed in showing the significance of African culture.

She received a Doctorate of Arts in African dance history and choreography from New York University and a Master of Arts from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

She has been the recipient of many awards and fellowships, among them the Pew Charitable Trust Fellowship for Artists and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has been published in both books and dance journals.

She has choreographed scores of dance works, including many by her own dance troupe, Kariamu and Company: Traditions.

“Always, my goal is to really show the beauty and diversity of African culture,” Welsh Asante said. “To educate people about the artistic heritage that people from Africa have, that’s always at the forefront of my mind.”

“This month the dance troupe of Kariamu & Company: Traditions is launching its spring season, which promises to be a rich blend of traditional and contemporary African movements and styles.
The company will be performing a new work called “The Museum Piece.”
“I’m excited about it because it’s a piece that touches on the way in which black people have been objectified,” said Kariamu Welsh Asante, the company’s founder and artistic director.

C. Kemal Nance will display his choreography in a profound piece called “9/16/01” that portrays what happens in a church service the Sunday after Sept. 11.

The concert will also include Welsh Asante’s new performance piece, as well as a spoken word performance and a drum solo.
“Ultimately it’s a celebration,” Welsh Asante said. “A celebration of movement, of human dignity, human will, human perseverance.”

Kariamu & Co. will be performing at the Conwell Dance Theater on Feb. 21-23 and 28, and March 1-2, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 general admission, $8 students and senior citizens, and $5 with Temple GAF card.

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