Umoja Dance Company

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".

Presently, Love is the director of the dance program at Hillside High School, director of the after school dance program for Hillside Public Schools district and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. Love is a Certified Pilates Mat Instructor and certified 300 RYT yoga  teacher registered with Yoga Alliance. Love is a DanceNJ Executive Board Member and NJPAC Dance Advisory Co-Chair.

October, 2006 Love created Wofabe African Dance & Drum Festival!  New Jersey’s 1st African dance and drum festival. The festival consisted of African dance and drum classes, panel discussions, free children classes, and an evening dance concert. The festival was 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 thirty years. Love was awarded two consecutive Folk Artist Apprenticeships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts to study Guinean Dance with Master Teacher M’ Bemba Bangoura. She was able to travel to Guinea, Mexico and Bermuda under the tutelage of Bangoura.  Love was able to study under her mentor the late Baba Chuck Davis in Senegal, The Gambia and Morroco. She traveled with her assistant director Nailah Morris to Cuba to study with Danys La Mora Perez. She traveled to Australia as a representative for the dance department of Montclair State University where she both performed and taught classes in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.  

Love 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 where she taught classes in Contemporary Modern, Composition, West African dance, Dance History and served as the advisor for the BFA Senior Projects. Love created a new piece 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 Montclair High School. She has conducted numerous dance residencies and workshops throughout the country.

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 eventually found her way to African dance as a young adult. Her love of African dance afforded her the opportunity to perform with several companies: Mamadou Dahoue and the Ancestral Dancers, Harambee Dance Company, M’Bemba Bangoura & G”Bossikolo, Umoja Dance Company, as well as participating in Dance Africa/NY as a Candle Bearer. Nailah performed internationally in places like Taiwan, Jamaica, Brazil, and Cuba.

Over the years, Nailah began to perform less and chose to devote more of her time to her passion in other ways. She is currently the Assistant Artistic Director for the Umoja Dance Company. Nailah is also an active board member for Viver Brazil - a L.A. based Brazilian dance company, and she served as the Administrative Assistant for the Brooklyn based community dance school Aspire 2 Dance for over 10 years. Today, Nailah enjoys Afro-Cuban dance and is a member of the GMA Dance School under the direction of Gilset Mora. Her motto is Dance is Life and Life is Dance!

Christine Smith, Company Manager

Ms. Christine as she is affectionately known to the Umoja family was educated and nurtured in the Newark Public Schools. She went on to received her BA degree in Music from formerly known Montclair State. 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.

Christine enjoyed a distinguished teaching career at MHS that spanned twenty-six. years. She not only taught students with varying exceptionalities, but she also taught her students to be passionate about learning and compassionate about human rights. She is extremely proud of her rewarding relationships with former students who have distinguished themselves in their various professions, careers, and jobs. Christine's rapport with her students was strengthened by her extra-curricular activities’ involvement as an Advisor 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., Black History, Women's History Months school wide assembly programs, former Assistant Director of the MHS School of Visual and Performing Arts Dance Company, home instructor, 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.

Christine retired from a successfully and rewarding teaching career in 2010. However, she can still be found substituting throughout the MRS district as needed. Although focused on a teaching career for thirty-four years, she has applied and parlayed a combination of practical and academic experiences to other areas of interest. She currently 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 experience authentic traditional West African dance abroad in Africa under the direction of Master Teachers of this in1portant art form. Christine loves to dance, sing, and play her violin. 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, chore dramas, and concert choirs throughout the Metropolitan area. She is a member of Metropolitan Baptist Church and a devoted member of the CBC Choir of the Count Basie Theatre of Red Bank NJ.

"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.

Cori Barnes

Cori is a New Jersey based preforming artist who started her career at a very young age acting & modeling. Her love of dance blossomed from the age of two years old through the guidance of renowned professional dancer Shirley Black Brown .She furthered her professional dance training at Sharon Miller's Academy for the performing Arts , Newark School of the Arts ,Dance theater of Harlem and a plethora of legendary choreographers Louis Johnson , Maurice Hines , Carmen De Lavallade and many more .She later joined both M.A.Taylor Dance Company and Umoja Dance Company.

Cori has elevated her career as a professional ballerina, instructor, creative director and upcoming choreographer .

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.

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 C Knox

Tiara C. Knox, is a New Jersey-based teaching artist, performer, and choreographer. She received her training in dance from New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Umoja Dance Studio, and Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts. Knox earned her BA in K-12 Dance Education from Montclair State University, where she was awarded the Mary Ann Peins Award for Dance Education, and went on to earn a Master of Arts in Theatre and Dance from Wayne State University. She has presented choreography and performed at several dance festivals including the Jersey New Moves Festival and the annual Metrowest Dance Festival. Tiara has an intense passion for arts education and advocacy in public schools and has established and developed dance programs in several schools throughout New Jersey. Currently, she serves as a dance educator for the East Orange Public Schools.

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.

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. 

Taniyyah Payne

Taniyyah Payne, (Newark, NJ) is studying to receive her BFA in dance at Montclair State University. She will be graduating with her BFA in May 2023. Her training began at the Ailey School as a scholarship recipient, training intensely in Ballet, Jazz, Horton, Contemporary & West African. Throughout Taniyyah’s training she’s had the opportunity to work with artists such as Tommie Waheed, Steffanie Batten Bland, Larry Keigwin, Urban Bush Women, Earl Mosley, Christian von Howard, and Maxine Steinman. In addition to her pre-professional training, she’s also hosted drop-in classes teaching HipHop and Heels.

Jailyn Phillips-Wiley

Jailyn Phillips-Wiley (she/her) is a Brooklyn based dance and movement artist who stands on the fact that dance is not only an artistic outlet, but a physical, mental and spiritual release that is vital to the human experience. A born and bred product of New Jersey, Jailyn has been privileged enough to train in an array of styles from ballet to west African dance since the tender age of four years old, honing in on that knowledge to inform her creative expression today.

While attending Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, Jailyn’s been blessed enough to work with her peers, Shannon Gillen/Vim Vigor Dance, Dawn Marie Bazemore, and Chein-Ying Wang/Paul O’Campo. In her senior year, she received the Majorie J. Turner award for outstanding choreography for her senior thesis “Chip Skylark”.

Another opportunity that was received while in school was studying at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in Israel/Palestine, submersed into the gaga movement language, and learning through past and present members of Bathsheva Dance Company and Vertigo Dance Company.

Outside of dancing, Jailyn finds fulfillment in making collage art pieces, nerding out on music and music history, fashion styling, swimming, and enjoying the company of her loved ones. Jailyn strives to elevate as well as strengthen her artistic voice through an afro-surrealist lens. She has every intention to collaborate with any and every dance and interdisciplinary artist she feels connected to in this life. Eventually becoming a noted interdisciplinary artist in her own right with gems to share for the next generation of artists to come.

Christine Placide

Christine Placide, Esq. is a Haitian American lawyer from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY. Christine’s study of dance commenced when she was six years of age at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Youth Arts Academy. Christine danced annually at the Dance Africa Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as a member of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Dance Theatre Company, and as a company member of the Thiossane West African Dance Institute. Ms. Placide has had the pleasure of being trained under the tutelage of such master instructors as Baba Chuck Davis, Youseff Koumbassa, Marie Brooks, Robin Gee, Esther Grant-Walker, Karen Thornton-Daniels, Mama Andara Rahman, Karen Love, Tianna Hestor, Suzan Kounta, and Chris (Sweat) White.

Christine’s passion for the performing arts and protecting the rights of creatives led her to serve as a Mediator and Volunteer Attorney at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, providing legal counsel to low-income creatives.

Christine received her B.A. degree in African Studies, with a minor in  Dance and French from The Ohio State University and received her J.D. from Touro Law School, where she was the President and Editor-in-Chief of the Fashion Law Society, Vice President of the Entertainment Law Society, and Vice President of the Black Law Student Association. Before graduating, Christine earned an internship at Atlantic Records, where she worked in the legal and business affairs department and worked abroad as a teacher at Meiguo Academies in Beijing, China.

Currently, Christine is In-House Associate General Counsel at Elite World Group, a worldwide model/talent management network, where she attends to matters related to entertainment, fashion, commercial deals, risk mitigation, intellectual property, data privacy, H.R., and more. She is honored to be a part of the Umoja Dance Company and is excited about continuing to build a supportive community for artists. Christine thanks her family and friends for their love and support.

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.

Dondrea Taylor-Stewart

Dondrea Taylor-Stewart, a native of Maplewood, New Jersey, discovered her passion for dance as a praise dancer in church. She began training and performing with various companies, including Theatre Workshop under Marie Thomas-Foster, where she first learned Hip Hop and West African dance. As she grew older, Dondrea explored her own choreography and joined Columbia High School’s Special Dance Company, directed by Kandice Point Du Jour. Here, she met Karen Love and joined Usaama Dance Company, dancing with them for six years.

Dondrea went on to earn her BA in Anthropology/Sociology with a minor in Psychology from Pace University. During this time, she trained and performed with Brickhouse NYC and XPro, a semi-professional hip-hop crew for adults. After graduation, she realized dance was her true calling and decided to prioritize her passion by incorporating it into her everyday life.

Dondrea is now an Associate Dance Teacher at New York’s Success Academy in Union Square and has returned to Umoja to continue growing and feeding her soul. With her diverse background in various dance forms and dedication to teaching and inspiring young dancers, Dondrea hopes to impact the dance community positively.

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.