By Rhea Riley
Founder and artistic executive director of the Ko-Thi Dance Company, Ferne Caulker, joins Faithe Colas to talk about her path into dance and teaching children.
Ko-Thi is known as the cultural ambassadors for the artforms of African descent. The program was founded in 1969 by Caulker and has since focused on teaching the traditional African and Caribbean dance and drumming. The company services over 250 enrolled students through their year-round class studio series. In addition to their studio series, the company has had the opportunity to tour nationally and internationally, but most importantly they have been able to bring their art to the community through their DrumTalk program.
“I’m proud of the fact that, this is what Ko-Thi is still doing,” Caulker said about Ko-Thi’s outreach in the education systems. “That is 60%-70% of what we are still doing.”
Over the past 50 years, Ko-Thi’s Drumtalk and other educational programs have been impactful to many local schools and community members. Ko-Thi’s educational programs service 5,000 school kids a year, and in previous years Ko-Thi worked with upwards of 7-8,00 school kids with more performance and ensemble opportunities.
Caulker’s passion for educating youths began with her unique upbringing and experiences. Born to an African American mother and a west African father, Caulker was exposed to many different lifestyles including three separate educations on three different continents. Caulker spent 13 years in West Africa as a child where she was able to learn the culture of her father’s people. She was later sent to a British boarding school. However, after her father was killed in a plane crash, Caulker and her family were planted in Milwaukee. Her mother found work at Marquette University and Caulker finished her last year of high school at Custer High School.
“In those three different educational systems, I learned what it means to be the other,” said Caulker.
Through these differing life experiences, Caulker found a grounding in her African culture—in particular her dancing and the lessons she learned from west African communities. Within this culture she understood how to balance her feminine and masculine side to work towards her advantage as she began her company in a male dominated world.
After pursuing a career in modern dance with ambitions of joining the renowned Alvin Ailey dance company, Caulker was redirected when she met Pearl Primus. Primus was in town as a guest of the Milwaukee’s modern Dance Committee and taught a class in which Caulker participated and had a revelation about her dance style.
After this encounter, Caulker went on to research in Ghana and later returned and founded Ko-Thi and her momentum hasn’t stopped.
Empowered by the spirit and positive energy from teaching children, Caulker now continues to educate as a full-time professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. At UWM she installed the first courses of African and cultural dance.
“I don’t have tons of money. I can’t fund a school, but I can take an art form into the school and give children a chance in that hour to just dream for a second, and to see something different,” said Caulker about her opportunity to change the lives of black children in the 53206.
The term Ko-Thi derives out of her father’s native language with “Ko” translating to “go” and “Thi” translating to “black. “The company name is based off of the figurative concept of going and continuing the search of unearthing, maintaining and celebrating black people and culture,” she said. Caulker intends to continue this practice of embracing the black culture and sharing it with Milwaukee’s children.
To learn more about Ko-Thi and donating to the company visit https://www.ko-thi.org