Umfundalai, which means “essence” in Ebonics, is a polyrhythmic, multicultural African dance technique. It was developed in 1970 by Kariamu Welsh Asante, a dance scholar and professor of dance at Temple University and Swarthmore College. Umfundalai came out of Welsh Asante's quest to create a method that functionally and aesthtically mirrors certain aspects of African life and experiences. The dance technique synthesizes movements and aesthetic characteristics from continental Africans and Africans in the diaspora; it was shaped by and responds to the cultures of the various African ethnic groups. Umfundalai is considered a pan-African dance technique because it draws from the various styles and movements from disasporic ethnic groups, including dance elements of African Americans. The pedagogy of the technique is twofold. First, it is centered on the belief that students of the dance must study the culture the dance comes from in order to fully understand and appreciate the dance. For example, when students learn the Nigerian Stomp within Umfundalai, they are also given the social, political, and historic background of the Nigerian people and their culture. Second, Umfundalai draws from the African cosmology the idea that universal perception should be the harmonious interaction between the seen and unseen. Thus the student receives a holistic, personal text for the movement.
Umfundalai functions as an African cultural village. Before the start of the class, the dancers must pay respect to the drummer and the instructor, as these ideals have been incorporated into the dance. Thus Umfundalai resembles the traditional dances found on the African continent and in the Caribbean, but the movements within Umfundalai are not found in these areas. Welsh Asante developed the technique while traveling on the continent and in the islands, but Umfundalai is a synthesis of traditional dances with a contemporary flare. At the height of developing the dance technique, Welsh Asante was one of the leading members of the Afrocentric movement. Umfundalai was a way for her to create a pan-African technique that added to the body of knowledge within the Afrocentric paradigm. Through intense study of each ethnic group, Welsh Asante has ensured that each dance movement represents the historical, mythical, and cultural context of the group from which it was derived.
Umfundalai is performed in educational, recreational, and professional venues. The dance technique provides an introduction to African and African American culture and has enhanced the relevance of African dance techniques to other forms of dance, such as jazz, modern, and ballet. Students who are knowledgeable about African and African American culture have one advantage in studying Umfundalai; experienced dance students have a different advantage. However, Umfundalai is a dance technique that allows dancers to enter at their own level, and it can be taught to dancers at all levels at the same time. All students of Umfundalai learn to understand and appreciate its context of African values, spirituality, and philosophical reflection while using their bodies as vehicles of expression.
- Ackerman, Robert. (1996). Traditions. citypaper.net Retrieved June 16, 2004.
- Mills, G. R. Umfundalai—One Technique, Three Applications. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance (JOPERD) 65 (5) 36–38; 47 (1994). This is one of the first articles to deal with the technique.
- Welsh Asante, Kariamu. (1997). Umfundalai: An African Dance Technique. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. This is the key work on the subject.