"It's about footprints, large numbers of footprints," says Ferne Yangyeitie Caulker, founder of Ko-Thi Dance Co." You change the world one footprint at a time."
As creator of one of the nation’s leading African dance companies, Caulker has left footprints all over Wisconsin and the United States. She grew up in Sierra Leone, moving to Milwaukee when she was 16. She broadened her dance vocabulary at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and Milwaukee, studying ballet, jazz and modern dance.
Today, Caulker is a professor of dance at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) and serves as the artistic/executive director for Ko-Thi, which she founded in 1969. "It's natural for my work in academia and the Company to influence each other," she says, explaining that Ko-Thi is really an educational/arts based organization. Since 1995, Ko-Thi has been a professional affiliate of the Peck School for the Arts at UWM's Department of Dance.
One of the three oldest African dance companies in the United States, Ko-Thi is dedicated to preserving traditional African, African-American and Caribbean dance and drumming. The group uses dance, music, traditional instruments and authentic costumes to educate the public during performances and its educational outreach. Its mission is evident in the name "Ko-Thi," which means "seek out African roots" in Sherbro, a language of Sierra Leone.
"What we did was novel at the time," explains Caulker about the founding of Ko-Thi. "In the late 1960s, Milwaukee was a city that had been wracked by riots and racial problems. It needed an organization that could bridge racial divisions and offer the broader population an insight and education about African culture and people. Exposure to a professional dance company centered on the African aesthetic was an important step in that direction."
In keeping with Caulker's vision, the dance and music of Ko-Thi covers a broad spectrum of African experiences and culture - for example, examining what happened to African people during the Middle Passage to the New World through dance and music. Through its performances, and outreach programs the company aims to change the public's perspective of African dance. “People don't have the same level of respect for African dance,” she notes. “I want to put it on the same playing field with other classical global forms.”
Like many community leaders, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has long recognized Ko-Thi's importance to the city.
“Milwaukee's diversity is one of its greatest strengths,” notes Barrett. "For the last 40 years, Ko-Thi has played a significant role, building bridges between communities and fostering cross-cultural awareness. Through its spirited performances and workshops, Ko-Thi has helped to introduce African history and heritage to Milwaukee - and beyond."
Certainly, Ko-Thi's educational mission makes it different from other leading troupes, such as Chicago's Muntu Dance Theatre or the Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble. This mission has included the creation of Ton Ko-Thi, a children's ensemble, and DrumTalk, an artist-in-residence program that is over 80 percent of the company's activity. "Our vision and educational outreach are comprehensive," says Caulker. "They reflect the breadth of the African Diaspora."
While education is at the heart of Ko-Thi's mission, it is the company's performances that have gained it international recognition. During its 40-year history, Ko-Thi Dance Company has toured regionally, nationally and internationally, including trips to Tokyo's Mitsui Festival, Toronto's Harbor Festival, Walt Disney World, the Brooklyn Academy of Music's "Dance Africa" program, Chicago's Ravinia Festival (Summer 2009) and, most recently, the Victoria Theater in Newark, New Jersey. Through the years Company members have studied in Senegal, Ghana, Tanzania, Cuba, and Jamaica. However, for all her travels, Caulker can't single out any one tour or performance as a favorite - she's proud of every show.
"People don't understand the amount of work it takes to create a show. One minute of performance takes five hours of training and rehearsal," she explains. "The performance is the icing on the cake, not the cake."
"The easy part was getting it started," Caulker says. "The hard part is keeping it going -very few organizations make it through 40 years."