Julian teaches a specialized class called 'Umfundalai' at our 2100 Chestnut location on Sundays from 3:30-4:30pm. Umfundalai is a Kiswahili word meaning "essence," and is used by Dr. Kariamu Welsh (progenitor of the movement style) as the name of a contemporary African dance technique/ movement practice that aims to connect the practitioner to their embodied self. In this class participants will learn basic technique and movement practices essential to this technique with the focus of connecting with other participants and understanding the depths and range of movement patterns held within our own bodies. This technique welcomes all types of movers!
I spoke with Julian about Umfundalai, and his class on Sundays. Julian drops some serious knowledge about the origin of the dance form below. Get educated!
-Tell us about Umfundalai's history
Umfundalai, a Kiswahili word meaning essence or essential, has a longstanding history. The development of the technique started in the year 1970 at the height of the Black Arts Movement, a name given to a group of motivated Black poets, artists, dramatists, musicians and writers who emerged in the wake of the Black Power Movement. It began with a dream about a dance called “Mfundalai”, which progenitor, Dr. Kariamu Welsh, choreographed and titled as such. (The U was later added to the spelling) Kariamu established an all women university club that became the dance company, The Black Dance Workshop in Buffalo, New York, which was later renamed Kariamu & Company or K&C. (Buffalo Period 1970-1980)
With the support of a Fullbright Fellowship, Welsh moved to Zimbabwe to study traditional dance. She became the first Artistic Director of the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe. It was during that time that the lapa, a piece of fabric tied around the waist, became the standard studio attire for women and when live percussion became the preferred accompaniment for Umfundalai classes. (Africa Period 1981-1983)
The year 1984 began the Philadelphia Period- the longest and most historic period of Umfundalai’s development comprised of many “phases” that span 30 years. It is during that period that the intensive study by graduate students due to the pedagogical and artistic qualities of the technique began as well as the formal codification of Umfundalai. Though Temple University was the incubator for Umfundalai, other institutions like Freedom Theatre, Pennsylvania State University, and Swarthmore College (to name a few) became significant in maintaining the integrity of the technique. Though it wasn’t the progenitors intention to create a female centered movement practice, the bodies that trained and danced Umfundalai at the time were definitively female. It wasn’t until 1993 that men entered the Umfundalai technique. Since the body of Umfundalai had changed so did the company name- K&C became Kariamu & Company: Traditions. 1996 marked the certification of the first cadre of Umfundalai teachers- Yhema Mills became the first dance master while Stafford Berry and Kemal Nance became the first male certified teachers. Umfundalai’s choreographic repertory expanded significantly as well as the technique’s intellectual presence as 3 doctoral dissertations emerged from the years 1995 - 2014. In 2003 Dr. Yhema Mills, Dr. Kemal Nance, Dr. Cheryl Stevens and Josephine Heard-Deans formed to Organization of Umfundalai Teachers which later became the National Association of American African Dance Teachers or NAAADT. 2014 - 2021 is considered the Moving On period as Philadelphia was no longer the hub for Umfundalai activity. When Mama Kariamu made her transition to dance amongst the ancestors in October 2021, it marked a new phase in Umfundalai history, though it has yet to be officially named.
-How old were you when you started studying Umfundalai? Who were your mentors?
I was 18 when I first encountered Umfundalai at my dance audition for Temple University in 2010. At the time Dr. Kariamu Welsh, affectionately known as Mama Kariamu, was the Dance Department Chair. With the watchful eye of Mama and other faculty, Shaness Kemp ran the Umfundalai portion of the audition and though it was challenging, it felt very organic to my body.
I’ve had the privilege of entering the technique while Mama Kariamu was still here with us. When I met her in her early 60’s, she was still vibrant and MOVING! I was blessed to be an apprentice in Mama’s dance company, Kariamu and Company: Traditions, during my time as a student at Temple which offered me a community of mentors. I’ve had the privilege to share space with, perform alongside and learn from Oluko C. Kemal Nance, Shaness D. Kemp, Stafford C. Berry, Saleana Pettaway, my Mwalimu (assigned master teacher) Monique Newton Walker, and the technique’s progenitor, Dr. Kariamu Welsh. I am a part of the last generation of teachers to be taught directly by Mama Kariamu and I wear my certification like a badge of honor.
-What have you done with the style (ie teaching, performing, touring etc)
I’ve received my M’Singha Wuti certification in 2016 and am privileged to be featured in the Iwe Illanan, which is the official Umfundalai teachers handbook published in 2017. I have performed and traveled with K&C: Traditions, The Berry and Nance Dance Project and The Nance Dance Collective, dancing on stages in Philadelphia, New York, Ohio and Jamaica. I received my professional teaching certification in 2021. When it comes to teaching Umfundalai, I teach community level classes at UMA, I teach the technique to dance majors at Temple University, and have recently set work on students for Drexel University’s Dance Ensemble Winter Showcase.
-What is something you love about the style?
Something that I love about the technique is that it meets you where you are and encourages you to be exactly who you are and as you are in this present moment. It affirms that one should exist unapologetically. Your background and your story is unique and validates you to be who you are today. Umfundalai teaches us to own that! As a student of the technique, it helped me twofold: it taught me that it’s okay to be new at something and figure it out. It also helped me affirm and solidify the foundation of my character as a queer man of color. I Walk Strong because of this philosophy. I’ve come to know that many lessons learned in the studio can apply to our daily lives. As an instructor, I do my best to encourage others to move towards their own version of greatness, both on and off of the dance floor.
Thanks so much, Julian!