CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The men and women dancing on the stage wore earth-colored clothing covered with leaves, and their bodies and faces were painted with roots and branches. Their arms swayed gracefully like tree branches in a breeze. At other times, they exploded with energy, or movement swept across the large cast en masse.
Kemal Nance performs and teaches an African dance technique called Umfundalai. The dance technique, created 45 years ago, combines traditional African dance with Afro-Caribbean and contemporary African-American dance.
Video by L. Brian Stauffer and Anne Lukeman. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.
The dance piece choreographed by Kemal Nance, a lecturer in the University of Illinois Department of Dance, imagines a mythical scenario in which trees are dancing from communal joy. The work – “SHADE! (The Secret Dance of Trees)” – also serves as a metaphor for African-American culture.
“SHADE!” was performed at the American College Dance Association regional conference in March, and it was chosen as the closing piece for the gala that ends the conference. By then, “the word of mouth about this piece was so hot, the audience was applauding before the piece began,” said Jan Erkert, head of the U. of I. dance department.
The buzz about the work is similar to the buzz about Nance himself.
He joined the dance faculty at Illinois in fall 2014, with expertise in African dance, particularly a form called Umfundalai – an African dance technique created 45 years ago by Nance’s first African dance teacher. It is a stylized form of dance that combines traditional African dance with Afro-Caribbean and contemporary African-American dance. Nance is the first male master teacher of Umfundalai.
“When you see Kemal in class, teaching an African dance class, or Umfundalai, there is a charisma that is extraordinary,” Erkert said. “He just lights up. He’s a big man. The bigness of his body and his spirit is just captivating.”
That spirit is contagious, Erkert said. Even students who are unsure of themselves at first “are just flying by the end of the class with zest and enthusiasm.”
Nance felt that enthusiasm as well when he was first introduced to African dance.
“It was the thing that was closest to what I lived – watching girls jump rope and making up steps and dancing at parties. I thought, that was what we did in Chester (Pennsylvania, his hometown),” he said. “It made sense in terms of its physicality, but also its aesthetics.”
When Nance was a boy, his mother used to wake him up for school every morning to the song “Le Freak,” by Chic. They’d both dance to it to start their days. Nance was exposed to formal dance through an enrichment class with Upward Bound.
He entered college to study engineering, but found he didn’t really want to do it. He fell in love with African dance after taking a class to fulfill a physical education requirement. The teacher of the class was Kariamu Welsh, the creator of Umfundalai.
At the time, there was no dance major at Swarthmore College, his alma mater, so Nance majored in sociology and anthropology, with a concentration in black studies, and wrote about dance for his thesis. He taught dance at Swarthmore for 20 years and performed with several African dance companies. He also worked as program director at Upward Bound, using dance to show young people what they could accomplish.
He has also used it to tell stories important to him. Nance co-founded the Berry & Nance Dance Project in 1996 with a high school friend, Stafford Berry. The company uses contemporary African dance to create stories about African-American men and their experiences. Nance likes to challenge the expectations of what masculinity looks like and offer a diversity of male perspectives.
He tells a story of visiting Brazil a number of years ago. The people he met continually identified the big, black, American man as a basketball player.
“The sight of my swarthy complexion, 200-plus pounds, six-foot three-inches (led to assumptions) about what my position should be,” Nance said.
Nance created a program for Krannert Art Museum last fall about African-American masculinity that included testimony from men in the community about when their race or gender served as a “flash point”; a dance by a mother and her young son, about her desire to protect him; and a dance by Nance and his dance project partner Berry that chronicled their friendship. The performances were the springboard for a discussion on race, gender and contemporary African dance.
The dance department has been working to broaden its offerings, expanding from its historic basis of ballet and modern dance to include more diverse forms of movement, Erkert said. Nance and his expertise in African dance have contributed to that.
“He’s very thoughtful as well about how he’s presenting it and giving students context about where the movement is coming from in terms of history and cultures,” Erkert said.
He’s been an important male role model in a discipline that is overwhelmingly female, she said.
In addition to his teaching at the U. of I. and his choreography, Nance regularly teaches Umfundalai master classes, lectures and performs himself. He taught at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Jamaica last summer, and he’s been asked to return. He’ll teach there again in July.
He also is working on turning his doctoral research on gender assumptions in contemporary African dance into a book about men who’ve studied and danced the Umfundalai technique.
During his 2015-16 postdoctoral year at Illinois, Nance will work on a project about dance pioneer Katherine Dunham. The project, in conjunction with the department of African American studies, will include performance and community service.