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Kariamu Welsh, 72, a dance pioneer who made students want to live up to their history, dies

Welsh was a dancer, choreographer, dance scholar, Temple University professor and an author and editor of seminal works on Afrocentricity and Black movement traditions.

Kariamu Welsh in 2021, photographed by her son MK Asante.
Kariamu Welsh in 2021, photographed by her son MK Asante.Read moreEstate of Kariamu Welsh

Kariamu Welsh gained early lessons on catching the beat as a young girl in 1950s Brooklyn jumping Double Dutch with her friends. These were the rhythms she never forgot.

She went on to become a pioneer — an artist, Temple University dance professor, and an author and editor of seminal works on Afrocentricity and Black movement traditions. She died Tuesday at age 72 of complications from a neurological disorder at her home for the last two years, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

In an unpublished essay, Welsh wrote of those early days: “It was summer and it seemed that everyone was outside. The stoops were crowded with mothers, sisters, grannies and Miss This and Miss That. But the people and the sounds that drew forth dimmed as she heard the magical sound of the girls chanting ‘ten, ten, ten, one ten, one twenty.’”

In time, Welsh would see that those rhythms weren’t a simply part of a game — they had developed her. And she recognized the chants, songs, beats of that African Americans jump-rope tradition for what they were — ancestral memory.

As Welsh put it: “The street was an arena of improvised gesticulations and time-honored rhythms from the recent and ancient past.”

“She would never forget the intricacies of the ropes and the more she played, the better she became,” Welsh wrote. “This was her first training. She could bob and weave with best of them. She could [go] down and touch the ground and go up little buttercup.”

She went on to teach dance and dance scholarship at Temple for three decades before retiring in 2019, according to the university. Welsh, also a choreographer and academic mentor, would win a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts choreography fellowship, and three Fulbright scholarships.

Despite all that, she was down to earth. You would never guess from conversation that she had a doctorate in dance history from New York University, her sister, Sylvia Artis, said.

“She was a regular, but she was extraordinary,” Artis marveled. “It’s kind of hard to explain that.”

Welsh wrote and edited numerous books. She was also known for her work with her ex-husband, fellow Temple professor Molefi Kete Asante, often credited as a founder of Afrocentricity.

Welsh understood dance as essential for intellectual engagement and Afrocentric thought, as dance indeed is, Asante affirmed: “It is fundamental in many respects.”

Their son, MK Asante, a hip-hop artist and writer on the faculty of Morgan State University, said his mother hadn’t received her due for her influence on Afrocentricity.

“It definitely has to be understood that she is a founder of that movement as well — that’s just a fact,” MK Asante said. “Women get overlooked with those things.”

She was the oldest of three children raised in Brooklyn. Her mother, Ruth Hoover, exposed her children to art through museums and operas in the park. The family was not wealthy, and Welsh eventually earned a full ride to the University at Buffalo.

Welsh could see connections, why a dance with common roots might look a certain way in New York, but another way in Jamaica, and yet another way in Zimbabwe. The dance technique that she created, Umfundalai, was born of that vision. For Umfundalai, which she created 51 years ago in Buffalo, Welsh drew from movements across the African diaspora and distilled them into one practice.

Such a synthesis, her admirers and students say, hadn’t been done before. Rather than leaning on ballet, she “elaborated on the kinds of social dancing that we all like to do.” according to Thomas DeFrantz, a professor of dance and African American Studies at Duke University.

C. Kemal Nance, a dance and African American studies professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said her technique showed pieces of Africa in different places globally, including his native Chester.

A saying of Welsh’s, Nance recalled, was: “We should take what we do every day, and make it supreme.”

Nance added: “Umfundalai is an example of that. It’s a memory of dancing in your mother’s kitchen when you’re making dinner for Sunday or when you’re dancing around the house.”

Having a technique built from diasporic links, Nance, a master teacher of Umfundalai, said, “helps connect us to an African continuum.”

When many dance professors speak of Umfundalai, they speak of transcendence.

“It dug deep, a deep dive into African-generated truth,” said Brenda Dixon Gottschild, a Temple professor emerita of dance studies. “When you saw [her students] dancing, it was like a spiritual experience.”

E. Gaynell Sherrod, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of dance and choreography whom Welsh mentored, said Welsh challenged students to understand movement on a deeper level. Technique, Sherrod said, is often taught primarily through the shape of the movement and bodily awareness. Frequently, Black dances are performed and imitated without a grasp of their original contexts or intentions. In contrast, Sherrod explained, Welsh taught them more than just the moves.

“You’re learning the whole complex of what the movements, and the various parts of that vocabulary mean, so that when you go into the choreographic practice of it, the storytelling is already embedded in the embodied knowing of the technique,” she said. “It requires strength in the core. It requires engagement from the Spirit.”

What Welsh taught was difficult, emotional, demanding, and an honor, said Indira Etwaroo, director of Steve Jobs Theater at Apple’s California headquarters.

“I don’t think I’ve ever sweated as hard or worked as hard to meet the demands of a movement vocabulary or choreographer,” Etwaroo said. “We wanted our movement to stand up to the history that it had emerged out of. We didn’t want to not give our entire body to that, our entire being, our entire souls to that.”

Dance experts agree that aspects to Welsh’s philosophy are more popular today than when she started. Sherrod noted that many young people are interested in the histories and connections of the dances, like she was. Her ways of showing that Black people could learn from other cultures, while also showing that Black creativity was foundational to other cultures’ practices, too, DeFrantz explained, changed him intellectually. Her work, Etwaroo said, reflected a more equitable future.

“There’s some people who are on this planet who have a vision for a world in which all people can flourish, and which all people can realize their most beautiful selves. She was one of those prophets for us,” Etwaroo said. “She used the stage as a platform to show the world how beautiful we are, how powerful we are as Black people, as women. How majestic we are; how complex we are; how intersectional we are. She was building the future that we’re all trying to step into and build now at this time. She saw it before.”

Welsh, who could teach with her eyes, continued to choreograph even while facing health issues later in life. She spent her last years in Chapel Hill regularly entertaining loved ones from Philadelphia. She advised her students that instead of flowers, she would rather they “continue to teach the movement.”

Welsh was easygoing, but meticulous. She raised two sons, MK Asante and Daahoud Asante. MK Asante recalls her reading a book a week and five newspapers daily. She was a doting grandmother who played a mean game of Scrabble.

The day before she died, she was watching Monday Night Football. MK Asante was starring in and co-producing a segment and he called on his mother to coordinate the dancers for the piece. The football commentator noted one of the player’s rhythm. Welsh, of course, caught that.

“My mom said ‘That’s life, you have to be in rhythm. ‘ And it’s so true,” he said. “It’s like poetry to a poet — it’s not something you do. Maya Angelou lived her life as a poem. And my mom lived her life as a dance.”

Welsh is survived by her mother, Ruth Hoover, brother, William Hoover, sister, Sylvia Artis, sons, MK and Daahoud Asante, as well as six grandchildren. A memorial is to be held Oct. 28 at 11 a.m. at New Covenant Church of Philadelphia, 7500 Germantown Ave.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Multiple System Atrophy Coalition,