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Positively Milwaukee: Teaching African heritage through dance

Posted at 8:13 PM, Mar 12, 2021

MILWAUKEE — With powerful beats and passionate movements, Ko-Thi Dance Company has been helping bridge a cultural gap in Milwaukee for 52 years.

Ko-Thi was created by Ferne Caulker, who was always drawn to dance. Caulker moved to Milwaukee from Sierra Leone when she was a teenager. While in school here, she noticed something was missing.

“We covered every other culture on the planet but Africa,” Caulker said. “So much has been omitted about people of color in curriculums.”

That set her on her path to use her love of African dance and culture to educate others. But doing so, as a young woman of color in the 1960s, was not easy.

“I remember someone told me not to waste my time,” Caulker said. “That this was a German city and it would never fly to have an African dance company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. People thought I was nuts!”

Caulker didn’t listen and followed the beat of her own heart. Ko-Thi is now one of the longest-running African dance companies in the country.

“Where you are, you plant your roots and you build,” Caulker said. “Our focus is to reach as many young people as possible, and for those young people to see African-Americans who are very proud of who they, what they are, and where they come from. We can communicate that through this beautiful form that transcends race.”

Beyond the success of Ko-Thi, Caulker created a whole new college major within the dance department at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, where she taught for more than 40 years. It’s called “Performance and Choreography of the African Diaspora.”

But possibly her biggest contribution through it all has been mentoring so many young women along the way, earning her the nickname “Mama Ferne.”

One of her students, Sonya Thompson, now helps lead Ko-Thi as Assistant Artistic Director.

“My mission is that every young person gets to know their identity,” Thompson said. “Stop running away from it, and embrace it.”

Thompson grew up in Milwaukee. After becoming a mother at 16, and graduating high school as a single mom, she attended one of Caulker’s dance classes on a whim.

“I always loved to dance,” Thompson said. “When I went to that class, something shifted. I got on the dance floor and was free. After that, I knew I needed to be a part of this as much as I could.”

Through the healing movement, and with “Mama Ferne” as a mentor, Thompson learned to really value her heritage and herself.

“Mama Ferne is love, strength and support,” Thompson said. “She has taught me so much. She pushes you to your highest level of where you want to be a person, and how you look at yourself as a person. Growing up with dark skin was hard for me sometimes. That all changed. I see the beauty in me. Your skin is your skin, you must live in it fully. I tell the young girls we teach to really live in their shape. Be yourself. Let who you are shine through in your movement.”

“I believe if you see it, you can be it,” Caulker said. “I wanted to be the kind of woman that could hold up other women. That’s what it’s really all about.”

Thanks to Caulker’s vision, her legacy of culture and caring continues on.

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