Kariamu Welsh in conversation with Laura Katz Rizzo

Interview date: June 11, 2012 (At the City Line Deli, Philadelphia, PA)* Download a PDF of this conversation Kariamu Welsh is a choreographer, educator and founder of Umfundalai Technique, a movement vocabulary that incorporates steps, rhythm and sensibility from a range of African dance traditions, which has been taught for over 40 years. Welsh developed Umfundalai, which means “essence” or “essential” in Kiswahili, after studying with Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham and traveling to Africa to study and perform. She speaks with fellow Temple University faculty member and ballerina Laura Katz Rizzo about the process of codification and integrating the Western versus African attitudes about technique.   Laura Katz Rizzo: Do you want to talk a little bit more about these ideas of contemporary versus traditional versus neotraditional? Kariamu Welsh: 'Contemporary' gives me the freedom to work in the contemporary vein pulling on movements from various African cultures and also the African diaspora, the Caribbean..I grew up as a child of the 60s and early 70s and that was a time in America where there was the Black Arts Movement, there was the Women's Movement, there was something in the air that was all about change, all about new directions. I was teaching students in Buffalo, New York and these were students that were not exposed to dance, it was at a YWCA. One of the things I realized was that, even though I had trained in dance myself in New York City, how was I going to connect with these African American kids? I felt that just teaching them a straight modern class, was not enough. I wasn't proficient enough in ballet to teach them ballet, but even teaching them the amount of ballet I knew, I wasn't making the connections I wanted to. Before I thought of a technique, I began to experiment by using rhythms from my childhood, from community, from church that I knew the students could relate to, and making them into movements. I didn't have a conceptual idea of pan African or really even Africa, to be quite honest. Of course, I understood techniques but only understood them in terms of ballet and Martha Graham technique, which I had taken as a teenager, and which I loved. I wasn't yet aware of the Katherine Dunham technique, so it was really a process and there wasn't a moment [where it developed]. As I became more and more exposed to not only dance but to the dances of African Americans, (because it was in Buffalo) I also saw my first Alvin Ailey concert. I saw the company when I was in New York City, and that blew my mind. It blew my mind because of the way he used African American culture. At that time, the Ailey Company was all African American [dancers]. Of course they did "Revelations," but there were other pieces that were very much rooted in African American culture. It gave me the idea that dance could be on a very high level and still be connected to the culture. The revolutions that were going on in America at that time were really urgent and really inspirational. Things were happening so fast on so many levels and, and as a very young woman, I was a part of all that. I believed in equal rights for not only all people, but for all women. I very much echoed the Feminist pride of that era. I saw myself as empowered. Again, that comes in degrees. Obviously, I am sure I would not be able to articulate it the way I can articulate it now. It was more physical than it was necessarily intellectual. I had not read a lot on African American culture or African culture or even American modern dance. I knew Graham...and I knew jazz. Those were my two foundational techniques that I studied. Laura: What made you want to go to Africa to study? Kariamu: I met this incredible teacher who would become my mentor. My younger sister was taking lessons in dance in Harlem and I went to pick up my sister. I was home for break and I went to pick her up and I was early, so I was watching her in this class. The teacher was Catherine Reynolds, who was a Katherine Dunham dancer. And, I just fell instantly in love. I mean, she was incredible. I just thought, 'Oh my God. I've never met a human like this.' So, I invited her to come up to Buffalo, and she not only taught me the Katherine Dunham technique, but she was the one watching my work, both choreographically and my teaching style. She's the one who first began to say 'codification' and encouraged me. She was also the one to make the links between what I was doing, Caribbean dance, and African dance. She had traveled to both the Caribbean and Africa, so that became a goal of mine. But, I have to say that...my going to Africa was very, very, very transformative. In both a positive way and a way of contextualizing who I was because it also was a dose of reality. My generation was extremely romantic about Africa and, in some ways, I guess we might still be. But, by living there, I was able to see that there's good, there's bad, there's art, there's bad art, like any place. That was good for me because I was able to understand much better. I had a tremendous respect for many dance traditions out there but I saw myself very clearly then as an African American woman. While there were many similarities, there were also many distinctions, and that was very good for me, even in terms of the arts.
Kariamu Welsh teaching Umfundalai master class, image credit: Laura Katz Rizzo
                                                    Laura: I noticed when you were teaching class yesterday you didn't give labels to the steps. You demonstrated or you had one of your master teachers demonstrate, with the exception of some Western European language, like a "plié," so I am wondering what your thinking is with regards to the codification [of your technique] and the verbal way [in] how you name things. Kariamu: It's a good question. It's something that has evolved [and that] I grapple with. As I said to you, growing up in New York City, my formal training was jazz and modern, specifically the Graham technique. So, the Western vocabulary, was what I was used to. Plié, rond de jambe, all of those things. I try to make a concerted effort to use another language. However, it's symbolic, strictly symbolic. For instance, plié, all of us do no matter what technique you're working with. In the Dunham technique, she calls it a "soft knee." So, we could say "soft knee." In general, when I am working with dancers, the thing that they understand immediately is "plié," they understand "rond de jambe." Oftentimes, they themselves will clarify something by translating it into ballet terms. Therefore, I do not reject the terms. It's descriptive, it's functional and, really, it says a lot about American dance in that you can have an African dance class that uses those terms. Mind you, it's contemporary African dance, it's not traditional African dance. Some people may say, well that is really oxymoronic, but I look at it  as the sort of postmodern modern attitude toward movement: one body [that] can do many things depending on the perspective. The languages that we use include English, which is my first language, but in terms of ballet and other things, they're all a game. They are all there for the using. I don't apologize for that, and that process has been in evolution for me. I think many of my dancers who are trained in ballet and modern feel comfortable [with it]. Not because they are relying on...Western terms, but it's part of the language they speak.  It also frees me of a certain tie to a specific tradition because if I am...showing a dance and I am strictly dealing with a certain culture, there are all types of limitations that I, as a contemporary artist, don't have to adhere to. Many companies in America, African dance companies, are what I call neotraditional. They may call themselves traditional but the reason why I make the distinction is because neotraditional [companies] make their dances for the concert stage. Traditional [dance] would not be for the concert stage; traditional dance would be traditional within the context of the tradition. Once those dancers come, even if they perform in Africa on stage, there is a time element that comes [into it]. The [traditional] dances go from half an hour to three hours a day to [neotraditional dances at] twelve minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes by itself, which takes it out of the tradition. There is an idea of presentation. The dances become proscenium which means that it's no longer in the round, it's no longer fluid between the audience. I understand the spirit of people who are wedded to the traditional dance but what they're really doing is neotraditional. And, there is nothing wrong with that. I value it, I respect it. Many of my dancers do both neotraditional and contemporary as well as others because nowadays, people do everything. But, I do think it's important that people understand the difference. Otherwise what happens, is that people think they're really watching traditional dance and, actually because I've lived in Africa, a traditional dance wouldn't necessarily be interesting to the Western eye because it's part of a ceremony, it's part of a ritual...and it could take days. And, there would be moments that we would consider exciting and then it would just wane and something else would happen three hours later. And, that's the function: it's not meant to be exciting or presentational or anything like that. But, the neotraditional is where you get the dances that are fifteen minutes, they have a beginning, they have an end, all those things that we know. Postmodern dance now is adapting many of those elements: the fourth wall is removed and there is interaction with the audience. Still, it's in a Western context. It's still not traditional. Laura: Right. I have noticed, in keeping with this theme, that your recent choreography, like "Bookends" looked very different from earlier pieces that you've done. Not only does the choreography look different, but thematically, it's a little more abstract, it's less narrative. I was wondering if you could talk about that change, not only in your choreography but, also talk about if your teaching of technique has shifted to reflect the different kinds of work you're making.
Kariamu Welsh demonstrating technique, image credit: Guy Mandia.
                                    Kariamu: That's a good observation you had, Laura. In a way it's come full circle because initially, as I was developing the technique, I still wasn't very clear. Obviously, my grounding was in what we call modern dance. I think with [my works] "Bookends" and "Two Women," I like to push the envelope to see how those movements [come through]. Of course, you may not have seen it enough, but if you examine you see that much of the vocabulary was there but I am using it in a different way and with different music, so that it looks very different. It's a challenge to me.  For instance, in "Bookends," I had a very lovely, young dancer named Stephanie who just completely soaked up the technique. I wanted to make use of her and challenge her. Not that the piece was done specifically for her, but she was a consideration as I choreographed the piece. As was Eun Jung in "Two Women," in a sense that in class, I would see something in Eun Jung with a slightly different sensibility, and I liked it and I wanted to push it because I do believe techniques are open-ended. I don't believe there's just this one way of doing something. I do believe there's a correct way, but there are many correct ways and there are certain key things that should be going on. I think that dancers should be able to interpret movements for themselves. That's what happened with both "Bookends" and "Two Women." The comments I got on those two pieces were very intersting. I think, unfortunately, that this reflects on our own dance world. There are still misconceptions about contemporary African dance or using African dance movements or using the drum that immediately categorized it in a certain way. But I actually got some phone calls at home about "Two Women" from my colleagues because they wanted me to know how they were completely blown away with that. I was appreciative of their compliments but it was just a matter of me playing with what I had. It looked so different because I had so abstracting it. Laura: You challenged their assumptions. Kariamu: Exactly, I was challenging assumptions. That was what I was doing. But, there was also a comment that I was moving towards them, which I found interesting. Laura: So, this question is connected to the idea of codification. I noticed that many of your classroom exercises are set and the students have sequences memorized. And, you have them spatially arranged in a hierarchy, where the master teachers are in the front and they travel across the floor first. In what ways do you feel that set and codified technique develops a dancer into a creative artist. I, myself, am dedicated to teaching codified technique but I constantly explore this idea of how to allow students to use a codified technique to explore their creative potential. So, how do you do that? Kariamu: I also believe in codification. I do believe because students and dancers are learning, first of all, we're training them. In order to train anyone, you need repetition, you need consistency, In addition to believing in interpreting the movements I give them [the students], I do have moments both in my class and in my choreography for improvisation. Laura: Is there a way a codified technique is also a creative experience for them? Kariamu: Absolutely because they interpret [the technique] through their bodies. I often see things when I am doing it, and when I am watching them doing a movement that gives me an idea. Or, I say to them, ' I like the way you're doing that. Let's all do it that way.' That's the other thing. It's not necessarily bad or good, it's just, 'Oh, that's interesting. Let's look at that again.' Of course, I am concerned with alignment, how they're placing themselves, and all of those kinds of things. I do allow them freedom. Again, freedom doesn't mean that they can come to class and do anything. I'm not of that school. Improvisation is a very important part of African dance as well as neotraditional and contemporary African dance, but it's all within a context. I think that there are definitely times when there's room for improvisation but I do believe in the codification because, ultimately, everyone depends on the codified techniques. Even when they veer off and go completely postmodern, everyone is standing on that foundation, whether it's ballet, whether it's jazz. Everyone is standing, so even if they veer off and say, 'I reject that,' they have that foundation.
Umfundalai in full effect, image credit: Guy Mandia.
                                    Laura: So, how has [your dance technique], Umfundalai, changed over the years since you've been teaching it? And, how do you feel about what new teachers are doing with the material? Are there certain values or essential qualities of the technique that you don't want to change? I noticed in the workshop you asked each dancer to talk about who they were, and how they came into the tradition. So, what do you see as the tradition and how do you feel about adapting it and changing it? Kariamu: I describe Umfundalai as an open and fluid technique. I think that there have been so many changes already and most of it I applaud. I think that it's a technique that its viability depends on the contributions of others. It's why I don't call it the "Welsh Technique" or the "Kariamu Technique." But, there are certain things that should remain: the groundedness, the polyrhythms, the articulation of the pelvis and the hips.  I think that because the diaspora of Africa has so many dances that we have even yet to learn, there is always something that can be added to the technique. I don't want to say, 'you can't do this' and 'this is wrong.'  I want there to be a great deal of liberty and openness about it. At the same time, it should remain a codified technique - everything has limitations. I do believe in the technique as a training tool, as a teaching tool, and that's important because you develop techniques as a means to an end. You're developing the body for a certain kind of expression. These days, dancers work with so many pick-up companies, they can go from ballet to hip-hop to African, and I think that's fine. There was a time when a ballet dancer strictly did ballet - there was no blurring of lines, but nowadays, it's very different. Laura: I did notice stylistically that you kept coming back to this idea of not overdoing things. There's a gentleness about you and your way of speaking and your way of thinking, and I wonder if you feel that is part of your technique? Kariamu: I do. I feel that neoAfrican dance traditions sometimes are a bit over the top in that it has a lot to do with the energy of America and of the West. You find that things are faster and harder. Again, having worked in Africa, I saw that that was not the case. So, naturally, young people sometimes like to do that and they are wedded to it, I try and take them away from it a little bit. It adds to this stereotypical notion of a dance tradition. Also, because there are actually many more levels and layers and nuances of African dance that people don't see and I want people to see. I try and move them from this [style]...that's something they bring in with them and they think they're doing it and, they are working very hard but they are working too hard! It doesn't have to be that way. They don't really lend [the form] anything by doing that. Laura: Right. There's not as much shading. Kariamu: Exactly.
Kariamu Welsh in demonstration, image credit: Guy Mandia.
                                                  Laura: I noticed the class is very progressive. You begin a series of movements with a simple isolation and it will build in complexity and difficulty. The first exercise you did in the class, you asked the dancers to roll their heads and, then, they integrated a pelvic roll simultaneously with a head roll, and they started to locomote the phrase. So, what in your training led you to teach African dance in this way? Kariamu: It's very interesting that you saw that progression. A lot of this [teaching style] has happened in the last fifteen years. In teaching something you see that there's a need to move with it. In other words, I am learning as I teach it and I think, "we can really do this with it," and it just keeps evolving. Laura: I know because I've done a lot of teacher training. What I've learned in my teacher training is how to take very complicated things that I want students to do, and how to break them down into the most simple movement possible and build it back up again. Kariamu: That's exactly right. It's the breaking down of things and giving them these complex movements and very simple kinds of things. Eventually they will be build it back together as this complex thing. If they can master the simple, you can begin to pull things back in, as opposed to just throwing them this complex thing and saying, "do that." Laura: If you were learning Umfundalai in its context, you would just do it. It wouldn't be broken down for you. So, you're taking a more complex dance that you've learned and figuring out how to break it down in a codified way. Kariamu: Yes, and it is a very Western [method]. For instance, when I lived in Zimbabwe, the way I learned the neotraditional dances was, they would do it, we would follow. They would do it over and over again...it was not broken down, 'this is the dance and you just keep on doing it until you get it.' My only previous training in dance was the idea that it gets broken down, and I think that it's very useful. I think the way neotraditional dance is, at least in the West, is that it's broken down because it's a way for students to get it and understand it. Laura: Right, and it's in our Western [training]...to break things down and to compartmentalize them. Kariamu: Very much so, and [to this extent] I believe in doing that. It's like throwing someone in the water and saying "Swim." Some people can work with that but a lot of people do better with showing them how to go first, showing them the arm movements. That's a good point. Laura: What about protocol? Where did the protocol come from? Did it come from your experiences across Africa or did it come from your teaching? Kariamu: Part of it is just Western protocol of center floor, across the floor. The paying [of attention] to the drummers, in Africa [and] much like you do in the Western world, you acknowledge the drummers. In this case, the musician is playing the drum [that's] on the floor and you [as dancer] place your hand on the floor. So, there is a protocol of acknowledging the drummer. Also, like you say, the hierarchy. There's definitely a hierarchy. In traditional African dance, they may not call to their masters, but there are certainly masters. The people who really know and who can correct other people and who can tell you whether the rhythm is right. There are definitely those people. This comes with experience and time, you don't just become a master teacher over night, like with any other tradition. Also, understanding the context of the movement. It was a process for me to integrate both Western and African protocols into [the class]. Laura: How you feel about the struggles in being a creative artist in an academic context. From my observation, you seem to bridge the worlds of creative and scholarly research with ease. But, does it create challenges for you in your creative work and also in your scholarly work? Kariamu: It does. I call it 'modes.' When I am in a creative mode it's very hard for me to shift to a scholarly mode; if I am in a scholarly mode, it's very hard for me to shift to a creative mode. It is a juggling act. Of course there's all kinds of challenges because, you know, in the academy they don't really allow for the creative process to completely take hold. For instance, say I do a concert and and I'm out every night rehearsing and all kinds of things, and then I  have the concert. The concert is over Saturday night, then that Monday I am expected to be teaching my classes, as if everything is back to normal. Generally, I need at least a week or two for time to just to sort of...process. But I don't have that, I just roll right back into my responsibilities. In terms of scholarly work, it can be created in many ways, but you then have to follow this codified style. You get into this academic kind of vocabulary and format and that's a mindset. Unlike in the creative process [where] you do get feedback, there isn't the kind of outside editing that would happen with scholarly work. In scholarly work, you get outside editing whether it's your editor or a copy editor or someone. With your choreography, you get feedback but, in a sense, you're much more the master of your own ship. It is different and I am glad I make it seem like it's with ease, but it's not. Even now, I grapple with how to do it and not drive myself crazy.
Kariamu Welsh and Laura Katz Rizzo, image credit: Guy Mandia.
                                  Laura: Do you think your choreography would look different if it were in a different context? Kariamu: That's a good question. Laura: Or, would you just do what you do? Kariamu: I think I would just do what I do. Because I've been in this for quite some time, I am able to navigate in both these worlds and do it. I think my choreography would look the same. I think in terms of my research and scholarship, I think that might be a little different if I felt I had a little more freedom. I think following certain styles and certain formats I find, sometimes, restrictive. Sometimes I am operating in an area (if I am talking about African dance), where there hasn't been a lot of written documentation, I am often at a disadvantage where I have to be more descriptive or I am working around some lack of written documentation, so it's very hard to go back very far because most written documentation begins in the late nineteenth century and, even then, it's very pejorative. In the late twentieth century, it's gotten better but there is a lot to be done in terms of written documentation. Laura: So, my last group of questions is kind of large. I wanted to talk about gender and race. To start off with race, what place  do you think race has in the identity of your company, and is this racial identity is part of your mission to create a positive community in which people of African descent feel like they can celebrate their identity?  How appropriate in that context would a mixed race company be? Kariamu: Well, it's very interesting. I have evolved on that issue, too. I think that, yes, my work is about the celebration of African American and Africanist stories, narratives, abstractions. However, I do now for a fact, that there are all kinds of bodies that can do Umfundalai and can do it beautifully. I see them as bodies. Yes, I know that the person may be White or Asian. I am not going to pretend I don't see who they are. But, when I look at what they do, they have moved me, they have inspired me, they have touched me, and, they too, have to be brave. It's a two-way street. Unfortunately, because we are entrenched in racial attitudes in the West, there are many people who assume that this is not for them. They just make that assumption. I try to tell people it belongs to all of them. There's certainly a specific perspective for me, as there is with any choreographer that you are working with. I've seen many times, the bodies that come to me...cannot do Umfundalai. Like any technique, you have to really train in it and you become proficient and that takes time and talent and skill and all the rest. So, it's a rarified thing for anyone. However, I don't say Umfundalai is only for Black people...and I would hope that the stories that I tell...speak to everyone. I want to say what I am saying in my unique voice, the voice of an African American woman. But, no, I have been taught by the people who have come into my life that they can master it. Fortunately, for me, I have allowed myself to be taught. Laura: In what ways is gender embodied in your training practices and also in your choreography? Is this something that you maintained from the dances that you learned in Africa, sort of a division of gender roles that you see in the technique. Or, is it something based on what's around you? Can you talk about that? Kariamu: Well, again, in traditional dance and neotraditional dance, there are normally very strict gender roles. In some ways, yes, I  have used them. I do teach men and the main things that I do that are gender neutral. In the West, and this is something positive, one of the things that I remember...I loved the things that the men did.  I would learn the male roles, even though they were very rigidly defined. This has happened in the West a lot. In that sense, I've blurred the lines. Many things that just appealed to me were technically originally strictly male roles. I am sure things are changing in Africa, but on the other hand, there are things, particularly if there is a certain narrative, in which I do abide by the male and the female. I also recognize many times in my classes where males will want to wear lapas [a sarong like skirt traditionally worn by females]. This is not something you necessarily see traditionally, but, in the West, with the fluidity of gender, that doesn't bother me, it's fine. Again, it's definitely contemporary. It takes these things that are very specific to our reality here and accommodates them, while trying to keep the connection with the African aesthetic. It's reaching forward because it has to go forward. Laura: Tell us something that you would want people to know about Umfundalai. What would it be? Kariamu: It's not just an expression. It gives voice to many narratives, histories that have heretofore been unknown. But, it is also an artistic expression that is open and inclusive. Very inclusive. And, that's not just gender. You have many body types. It's that, too. That's very important. Laura: I have definitely seen that with the company before and also with it: age. There are a range of ages, sizes, and colors on stage and that tells its own story. *This interview took place after Laura Katz Rizzo observed a master class for teachers of Umfundalai, taught by Kariamu Welsh at Temple University on June 8, 2011. Dr. Laura Katz Rizzo holds a Ph.D. in dance and women’s studies, an Ed. M. in dance, and a B.A. in History and English. She is certified in both the Vaganova syllabus and ABT’s National Training Curriculum. An accomplished teacher, choreographer and researcher, she has published and presented scholarship at many national and international conferences, and in many publications and institutions including: Dance Chronicle, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, BAM, and Playbill Magazine. She has taught master classes, set choreography, delivered papers and held positions at several institutions including: Mount Holyoke College, Bryn Mawr College, Franklin and Marshall College, Drexel University, Sarah Lawrence College and Temple University, where she currently an assistant professor and BFA Coordinator. She performed with several ballet companies with whom she performed principal roles from The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Paquita, La Bayadere, Les Patineurs, Dark Elegies, among other ballets. Please note: This interview has been updated on August 27 from its original date of publication.  
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African American dance, African dance, codification, dance education, improvisation, Kariamu Welsh, Katherine Dunham, Laura Katz Rizzo, Pearl Primus, technique


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