Umoja Dance Company

Company Members

Karen Love, Founder/Artistic Director

Born in Montclair, Love earned her MFA from New York University Tisch School of the Arts and her B.F.A. from Montclair State University where she was awarded the 1992 Excellence in Choreography Award and the 1993 Senior Award. She received The New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship Grant in 1995 and the Harkness Choreographers Space Grant at SUNY Purchase in 1993 and 1994. In 1997, Love was invited to The Bates Dance Festival in Maine as an Emerging Choreographer and later returned to teach for the Young Dancers Program. She was selected as a choreographer for the Choreographer/Dancer residency at the Yard on Martha's Vineyard, recognized in Who’s Who Among American Teacher’s 2004 and 2005 and was honored as one of the "50 Women You Should Know in Montclair, NJ"and as a “Women of Distinction” by The YWCA of Essex and West Hudson.

Presently, Love is the director of the Dance Department at Hillside High School, NJ and the director of the After School Dance Program for Hillside Public Schools District. Love is a certified Pilates Mat Instructor and certified 300  RYT  Yoga and is a registered teacher with Yoga Alliance.

In 2006 Love created the Wofabe African Dance and Drum Festival. Wofabe!, New Jersey’s 1st and only African dance and drum festival. The festival consists of African dance and drum classes, panel discussions, free children classes, and an evening dance concert. The festival has been presented at Newark Arts High School, Science Park High School, Newark Symphony Hall and NJPAC.

She has studied West African dance and culture for the past 14 years and has had the opportunity to learn dances from Guinea, the Gambia, Mali, Senegal and the Ivory Coast. Love has traveled to Guinea, West Africa, Mexico and Bermuda under the tutelage of Bangoura. Love has traveled to Morocco, Senegal and the Gambia, West Africa under the direction of Baba Chuck Davis. 

She traveled to Australia as a representative for the dance department of Montclair State University where she performed and taught classes in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. She has performed with Urban Bush Women, Gallman's Newark Dance Theatre, and The VonHoward Project . She performed in Cole Porter's musical “Jubilee” at Carnegie Hall directed by the late Herbert Ross with choreography by Lynn Taylor-Corbett.

Love is a former Visiting Artist in Residence at Kent State University in Ohio. She taught classes in Contemporary Modern, Composition, West African dance, Dance History and served as the advisor for the BFA Senior Projects. Love choreographed for the faculty concert and the Kent Dance Ensemble. Her choreography has been commissioned and presented at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, DTW Freshtracks, Aaron Davis Hall, The Yard, Symphony Space, Danspace, Joyce Soho, Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center, Bates Dance Festival, Duke University, Northern Illinois University, Bal/Chi Dance Theatre, Montclair State University, NYU, Newark Arts High School, and Kent State University. She has conducted numerous dance residencies and workshops throughout the Metropolitan area.

Love is a former Visiting Artist in Residence at Kent State University in Ohio. Her choreography has been commissioned and presented at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, DTW Freshtracks, Aaron Davis Hall, The Yard, Symphony Space, Danspace, Joyce Soho, Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center, Bates Dance Festival, Duke University, Northern Illinois University, Montclair State University, NYU, and Newark Arts High School.

Nailah Lisa Ramonde Morris - Assistant Artistic Director

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Nailah Lisa Morris has been dancing since the age of 12. She began with ballet and moved into African dance in her early 20’s.  She danced with several companies: Mamadou Dahoue and the Ancestral Dancers, Harambee Dance Company, M’Bemba Bangoura & G”Bossikolo, Umoja Dance Company, and participates in Dance Africa/NY as a Candle Bearer.  Her dance experience over the years has afforded her the opportunity to travel internationally to places like Taiwan, Jamaica, Brazil, and Cuba.

Nailah no longer performs but remains connected to dance in other ways.  She is currently a Board Member for AspireKids, a pre-professional dance program for teenagers as well as the administrator for the Aspire 2 Dance Studio, both located in Brooklyn, NY.  And she is the Assistant Artistic Director for the Umoja Dance Company, located in New Jersey.  

Nailah holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts from the College of New Rochelle.  She also enjoys volunteering her time with youth groups conducting hygiene, wellness, and beading workshops, spending time with family and international travel.  Her motto, “Dance is life, life is dance! Hear it in your head, feel it in your heart!”

Christine Smith, Company Manager

Christine Smith received her BA degree in Music from Montclair State University. Additionally, she earned a MA degree in Special Education from Kean University. She began a teaching career at Riverdale High School in Fort Myers, Florida.  She also taught in the Newark Public School District before joining the Montclair High School faculty in 1986, where she taught and facilitated students’ acquisition of skills and knowledge via computer generated interactive Life Skills curriculum.

After twenty-six at MHS her credits include: one of four Lead Teachers in the institution of a small learning community pilot curriculum titled Youth Leadership Academy, Faculty Advisor to two unique diversity culture clubs, producer/coordinator of the annual Dr. MLK. Jr and Black History Month school wide assembly programs, former Assistant Director of the MHS School of Visual and Performing Arts Dance Company, home instructor, and Supervisor for MHS Saturday detention program, and Clinical Faculty member in the New Jersey Network at Montclair State University. She maintains active membership in several professional organizations.

Although focused on a teaching career for thirty-four years predominately in New Jersey, she has applied a combination of practical and academic experiences to other areas of interest. Apart from her professional teaching career she serves as Company Manager for the Umoja Dance Company. Continuing in this capacity since 1998, she assumes responsibilities for marketing, community engagement, procuring and negotiating performance contracts, and securing funding. Working with Umoja Dance Company has allowed her an opportunity to study authentic traditional African dance abroad in Africa under the direction of Master Teachers of this important art form. Christine loves to dance and sing, and to that end, she was the Founding Director for the St. James Liturgical Dance Ministry of Newark NJ. She has performed in several local area plays, choreodramas, and concert choirs throughout the metropolitan area. She is a member of Metropolitan Baptist Church and a devoted member of the MBC Concert Choir. “To God be the Glory for the things He has done!”

Kai Smith - Finance Director

Kai has enjoyed dancing since the young age of 5.  She is a humble student and supporter of the legacy of African Culture and regularly travels to participate in classes taught in NJ, NY and FL.  Ms. Smith whole-heartedly supports Umoja Dance Company's vision and legacy.  She respects the powerful healing rhythm of the drum and knows that it is an honor and privilege to uphold the traditions and history bestowed upon us by our Ancestors and Elders.

Jana M. Burton (contramestra Amazonas)

Jana M. Burton (Contramestra Amazonas),World Karate Union and United Martial Artists Fellowship Hall of Famer, serves as the Curriculum Developer of for the Afro Brazilian Arts & Education Academy as well as the Artistic Director for Grupo Liberdade de Capoeira, the first capoeira group formed in New Jersey.  Upholding the flag and legacy built by her teacher, Mestre Cigano (Robson Ribeiro), she works tirelessly to provide quality engaging workshops for adults and at risk youth. Growing up as a youth in Queens, New York, she trained Jujitsu, Judo Boxing and various other fighting styles.  Contramestra Amazonas spreads capoeira education to mixed martial arts communities at various seminars and throughout the United States as an elected Hall of Famer of several martial arts organizations.  Contramestra Amazonas spent many formative years studying with Professor Esperanca (Carlos W. Lopes) as well as completed seminar for Teaching Artist Training, directed by Mestre Ombrinho (Michael Goldstein), the first American born Capoeira master.  She combines all of her experiences in her various disciplines to encourage others to take a trip through the African Diaspora in her workshops offered under Umoja Dance Studio, The Institute of Music for Children, Arts for Kids and Capoeira Programs.  She has taught workshops and studied Capoeira philosophy, movement and song in various cities in the United States as well as Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica, Senegal and Brazil.  Track and Field brought her to New Jersey, where she competed and coached for Seton Hall U., NJ City U. and St. Peter's College. Amazonas enjoys fine tuning her expressions of West African culture on both sides of the djun djuns, as a dancer or drummer with Umoja & Usaama Dance Companies. Concurrently, she teaches mathematics in the Newark Public Schools system, and is a dedicated freelance teaching artist and performer in several West African dance and drum companies.

M’ten Halsey

M’ten Halsey is Brooklyn-born and rooted in African-centered thinking. A percussionist and spoken word artist, M’ten is a product of an upstanding and talented family. He’s been drumming since he was five years old and has traveled around the world spreading his cultural message with his spirited drum rhythms and powerful message. He has performed in Africa, Europe and throughout the United States and with companies such as Bennu Ausar Dancers and Drummers, Umoja Dance Company, and Asase Ya Drum and Dance.  M’ten has taught in many settings for private students and large classes including the Kamit Preparatory Institute and the Sephardic Community Center in Brooklyn. His goals are to preserve African-American culture through music and to promote cultural awareness because "Positive Culture creates Outstanding Communities.”

Tamara F. Jones

Tamara F. Jones is originally from Jamaica, New York where she grew up dancing since the age of 4.  Tamara attended Gloria Jackson Dance Studio studying ballet, tap, African, Jazz and Pointe. However, her career as a choreographer began at the age of 12 where she would teach students African Dance for Black History Month programs. While a student at Nyack College where she received her BA in Psychology and Philosophy, Tamara was the dance choreographer for AAACE; African American Association of Cultural Exchange where she and her team would perform African Dance and Liturgical Modern pieces at several venues within the school and surrounding area.

Tamara Jones has been a member of several different dance companies. To name a few, her longest dance career has been with Harambee Dance Company based in Harlem, New York (Sandella Molloy) and Umoja Dance Company in New Jersey (Karen Love).  Amongst these companies, she has had the pleasure of dancing with Bambara (Sister Jewel), Les Enfaints du Soliel (Pape N’diaye), G’Bassikolo (M’Bemba Bangoura) and Nankama now known as Ballet Africans.

Throughout her dance career, Tamara has had the opportunity to perform on many stages and venues.  Those stages include Symphony Space, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), for Essence Magazine Events, Central Park shows, Summer Stage, the International African Arts Street Festival, NJPAC, Broadway Dance Center Student showcase, a BDC’s Tribute to Savion Glover 2005,  Kumble Theatre and Substitute Teach at Broadway Dance Center.

Apart from dancing, Tamara has had the opportunity to explore acting.  Currently, she is a hip hop dancer in the upcoming movie, “The Magnificent Cooley T,” starring Jackie Long, and Denise Vasi produced by Steven Leeds.  Tamara is also a part of the movie “A Meyers Christmas,” starring Gabrielle Union, Nicole Ari Parker and Danny Glover, directed by David E. Talbert and produced by Will Packer to be released November 2016. Lastly, Tamara directed, danced and was an actor named “Venus” in the play “Made in South East Queens written by Mark Lord and directed by Carl Clay at the well-known Black Spectrum theatre in Queens.

Kamile King

Kamille J. King (Educator, Choreographer, Arts Liaison, Assistant Director Usaama Dance Company and Artistic Director Montclair High School Dance Company), originally from New Jersey, began her dance training at the age of 11, at the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts. At the age of 17, she joined the Usaama Dance Company under the direction of Karen Love. She later continued her training at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she studied with Mark Davis, Roger Blum, Susan Waltner, and Donna Meija. While at Smith, she received a scholarship to train at the Urban Bush Women Summer Intensive in 2007. In 2008, Kamille received her bachelor’s degree in African American Studies from Smith College. She also created a Special Studies while in the Dance Department that explored three generations of women, as well as performing classic repertory works from Mark Morris, Mark Allen Davis, Donna Meija and many more.

After college she pursued a career of service and teaching at Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts (SMAPA). From 2008 to 2015, King was a SMAPA teaching artist in residence, working as a dance teacher in collaboration with the Newark Public Schools, East Orange School District, and the Montclair Public Schools. In 2013, Kamille joined the Umoja Dance Company as an African and contemporary dancer. She also serves as the Assistant Director for the pre-professional company of Umoja called Usaama Dance Company.

In 2016, she received her Certificate of Eligibility to teach full-time in the Newark Public Schools and currently teaches at Speedway Academies. That same year, she was selected to premiere work in the Emerging Artist of Jersey Moves (New) Moves for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and accepted the position as director of Montclair High School Dance Company. Kamille is also a Hollins University Dance MFA Candidate, class of 2019. She plans to continue her service as a crafter and creator of movement, an educator and advocate for arts in education programming, and a believer in the power of dance.

Tiara Knox

Tiara C. Knox is a senior at Montclair State University, where she is pursuing her B.A in Dance Education.  Here, she had danced in works by Maxine Steinman, Earl Mosley, Jessica DiMauro, Larry Keigwin and Martha Graham.   She has studied at New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Summer Youth Performance Workshop, and Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts where she has performed work by Heidi Cruz-Austin, Roderick Jackson, Darrell Moultrie, Meredith Rainey and Kevin Wynn.  She has performed and had her choreography shown at the Metro West Dance Festival, the Boogie Down Dance series at BAAD!, and the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center .  Knox is the 2016 recipient of the Mary Ann Peins Award from Montclair State University’s College of the Arts.  Knox looks forward to continuing to perform and teach dance, as she gets closer to graduation.

Breana LaFortune

Breana Astaire LaFortune is a Brooklyn born Haitian-American with a B.A. in Biology. She was given "Astaire" as her middle name after the legendary dance, singer, and actor Fred Astaire. With the influence of her parents, she started studying Guinean and Ivorian dance at the age of 6 under the direction of Youssouf Koumbassa and Mamadou Dahoue. At the age of nine, she became a member of Mamadou Dahoue and the Ancestral Messengers and she performed at various venues such as Dance Africa, Botanical Garden, Ivory Coast, Cote d’Ivoire embassy in Washington DC, International African Street Festival, etc.

At the start of high school she also became a member of the Restoration Dance Theatre Junior Company. Throughout her years she has had the pleasure of being trained under the tutelage of such master instructors as Baba Chuck Davis, Karen Thornton-Daniels, Obediah Wright, Ronald K. Brown, M’Bemba Bangoura, Wilhelmena Taylor, Esther Grant-Walker, Michelle Smith, Mama Andara Rahman, Ismael Kouyate, Sandella Malloy, Vado Diomande Kotchegna, Amina Royster, Shani Borden, Dyane Harvey-Salaam, Jill Vallery, and Chris (Sweat) White.

She is currently working in public health at Allied Service Center (ASCNYC)/Mount Sinai Hospital and teaches West African Dance at Aspire 2 Dance School in Brooklyn, NY. She is blessed to be part of Umoja Dance Company and honored to give back to her community through dance. She would love to thank all her family and friends for the support and guidance through her dancing career.

Titilayo Majoyeogbe

Artistic Director and choreographer of T.MAJ Dance Company, Titilayo Majoyeogbe dedicates her life to invigorate individuals and communities by exposing dance as a creative impact to help produce change. Titilayo will be in residency at The Ijodee Dance Company in Nigeria to create an avenue that reflects physical practice and choreography to share the wealth of professional dance knowledge starting September 2016. Titilayo graduated from Georgian Court University with a BA in dance on a scholarship reflecting her academic and performance excellence. While at Georgian Court, she received the GCU's Dance Choreography Award and was recognized in the Who's Who in American Colleges and Universities. That year, she continued her career with Urban Bush Woman [intern] and the Charles O. Anderson’s Dance Theatre X [apprentice dancer] and is now a performer with Umoja Dance Company. Her creative work has been showcased in Movement Research at Judson Church, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Creators Collective in Brooklyn, NY, San Jose Dance Company Festival and NJPAC just to name a few. Titilayo pursued her MFA in dance from Hollins University in collaboration with Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts in Frankfurt, Germany on a fellowship award. Currently, she teaches dance at Public School 5 in Paterson, NJ.

Nikkia Tyrie Neal

Nikkia Tyrie Neal received her BFA in Theatre Arts with a concentration in Dance from Howard University and her MS in Education Administration from Kaplan University. Nikkia served as an assistant and choreographer at the Harlem School of the Arts and has taught dance and theatre in the Newark Public Schools for the past 13 years. Nikkia was also an instructor and resident choreographer for the Rock Starz cheer gym, a guest company member in Deeply Rooted Dance Theatre, a senior company member in Alfred Gallman's Newark Dance Theatre, and continues to dance with Umoja Dance Company. Her performance and choreography credits include a range of work from musical theatre to concert dance and she finds joy in being able to give her gift to others.

Carla Nisbett

Carla Nisbett was born and raised in Newark,NJ. As the first generation born American, to Trinidadian parents , she spent  the majority of her younger years  dancing to Caribbean music. She started her artistic career as an instrumental musician; a clarinetist in the symphonic band,a saxophonist in the Jazz band and pannist for Newark Youth Steelpan Ensemble.

Carla graduated from Drew University with a B.A. in Biology and Montclair State University with a Master of Arts in Teaching. As a born lover of African culture,Carla's African dance journey began 8 years ago, under the tutelage of Zul-Latifa Zahiratu, founder, director and choreographer of Spectrums Afrikans ,and her talented daughters Kcydiima Zahiratu and Kcykiiyu Zahiratu.

She is currently dancing with Spectrums Afrikans and Umoja Dance Company and strives to continue the beautiful journey of discovery that African dance has unfolded in her life. 

Ray Phillip

Originally from Trinidad, W.I., Ray Phillip is a percussionist and current resident of Brooklyn, NY. He is well versed in West African and Caribbean percussive styles. Having being introduced to African drum/dance percussion in 1992, he has studied with various artists including M’Bemba Bangoura, Youssouf Koumbassa, Mangue Sylla and Karen Love. In 2001 he traveled to Guinea, West Africa with renowned master drummer M’bemba Bangoura to study drum and dance culture. He again visited Guinea in 2006.

Ray has participated in many multicultural workshops and performed for various schools, universities, community dance classes, professional dance companies and artists, including Umoja & Usaama Dance Company, Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp, Aspiring Young Artists, Camille Brown, and Ron Brown(Evidence), and Cynthia King Dance Studio.

 His travels and performances includes multiple venues such as BAM’s Dance Africa, SOPAC, Montclair University, Rutgers University, NJPAC, Lincoln Center Outdoors, Joyce Theater, York College, Central Park’s Summer Stage, Trinidad & Tobago Heritage Festival and Bermuda Carnival.

Sierra Christine Sanders

Sierra Christine Sanders began her early training in rhythm tap at Marie Wildey's School of Dance in East Orange, NJ. She continued her training with Modern and West African dance at New Jersey's Performing Arts Center's Young Artist Institute and with USAAMA Dance Company directed by Karen Love. Sierra has attended Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts, New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Summer Youth Performance Workshop, and performed at the American College Dance Festival 2016. Currently a senior at Montclair State University, Sierra has performed works by Larry Keigwin, Camille A. Brown, Frederick Earl Mosley, Nancy Lushington, and Maxine Steinman. Sierra will graduate with her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Dance in May 2017 and looks forward to furthering her career as a professional dancer.

Najla Amber Sims

Najla Amber Sims is a dancer, choreographer, educator, and community organizer. Raised in Montclair, New Jersey, Najla studied musical theater at a young age. She later discovered a passion for West African music and dance when she joined USAAMA Pre-professional Dance Company. Najla continued her career in Performance Art while studying Drama and Dance at Spelman College. In Atlanta she set new works and restaged pieces with various artists, such as T.Lang, Meredith Moore, Blake Beckham, Omelika Kuumba, Dianne McIntyre, Marjani Forté, and Aku Kadogo. She is now a company member with UMOJA Dance Company, NJ, REDi Dance Company, NY, and Movement of the People Dance Company, NY. As an artist Najla is influenced by dances of the African Diaspora, social justice issues, and connecting the mind and spirit in movement. She hopes to create space in the dance community for more artists of color.

Kcydiima Zahir

Kcydiima Zahir was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey.  As a child brought up in an Afro centric household, Kcydiima began African dance before she could walk.  In her younger years she started to explore her craft.  Dancing lessons at the Newark School of the Arts was an introduction to ballet, tap and modern dance.  At this same time, Kcydiima would be attending African dance classes under the instruction of her mother, Zul-Latifatu Zahiratu, and Marie Basse, her first African teacher. 

Kcydiima continued dancing through high school, mastering her craft at Arts High school under the teachings of Kim Richardson.  After high school she continued dancing through college, teaching classes and also starting a dance group while attending Montclair State University.  Over the years Kcydiima has danced with Maimouna Keita and Zawaidi Dance School. She is currently dancing with Spektrums Africans and Umoja Dance Company.

As a mom, Kcydiima thinks it is important to continue to pass the culture down to the next generation.  Her son, Khelile is learning the music and dance of the African culture as well.

Kcykiiyu Zahir

Kcykiiyu Zahir began her journey in dance at the young age of 3. Although the youngest of six dancers and drummers, she was the "fire" of the family. Kcykiiyu has always danced under the study of her mother Zul-Latifa Zahiratu, founder, director and choreographer of Spektrums Afrikans. She continued her teaching with Maimouna Kieta, Zwaidi school of African dance for several years and currently dances with Umoja dance Company. Kcykiiyu brings style, fire and energy to the dance, and an unending amount of personal persona that distinguishes her.