Black History Month Feature: Anthropologist Yolanda Covington-Ward’s Research Focuses on the Power of Dance and Gesture

Issue Date: 
February 21, 2011
Yolanda Covington-Ward stands in the Cathedral of Learning’s African Heritage Nationality Room. She is wearing a skirt and top made out of fabric given to her by a Nigerian friend. The type of fabric used is popular throughout West Africa and is often worn to such events as weddings or formal dances.Yolanda Covington-Ward stands in the Cathedral of Learning’s African Heritage Nationality Room. She is wearing a skirt and top made out of fabric given to her by a Nigerian friend. The type of fabric used is popular throughout West Africa and is often worn to such events as weddings or formal dances.

Yolanda Covington-Ward thinks her love of dance may have originated on the stage of her Bronx, N.Y., elementary school some 20 years ago. A shy, bookish, and serious fifth-grader, Ward was encouraged by a teacher to embrace her African heritage and culture. Soon she was transformed from a bookworm into an energetic, high-kicking performer whose head scarf flew off as she performed a West African dance before the entire school. The applause rocked the room as she exited the stage.

“I can still remember that,” laughed Covington-Ward, an anthropologist and assistant professor of Africana Studies at Pitt. Dance and performance, she said, are what gave her the confidence she lacked and the courage to face life’s challenges.

Through the ensuing years, Covington-Ward built an impressive list of credentials. Her master’s and PhD work in anthropology at the University of Michigan took her to Panama, Belgium, and to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It was in the Congo that she researched how people of the BisiKongo (Kongo) ethnic group used their bodies—not just in dance, but also in everyday life, even as a means to challenge authority.

Whether researching Kongo women’s use of trembling as a means to prophesy or looking at how dance shapes Liberian national identity, Covington-Ward has worked tirelessly to analyze how the body is used to transform social relationships and identities. She has been invited to lecture throughout the United States and the Congo, is proficient in four languages, and is passionate about teaching Pitt undergraduates the cultures, dances, and histories of Africa and its Diasporas.

She has been published in a number of peer-reviewed journals, among them African Studies Quarterly, Transforming Anthropology, African Research and Documentation, and the Journal of Religion in Africa. Her article on the performances of Kongo nationalism in the Congolese independence movement will be published in the Spring 2011 issue of the Journal of Black Studies.

For the past three years she has presented papers at the national conference of the American Anthropological Association, and she also has presented papers at the international conference of the African Studies Association and of the Association of Black Anthropologists.

She recently completed a two-year term as secretary of the Association for Africanist Anthropology.

Where her career has led her is far different from where it began. The oldest of six children and the first in her family to attend college, Covington-Ward was on the premed track at Brown University in the late ’90s. But her love of African culture and a study-abroad semester in Ghana kept pulling her toward anthropology. At Michigan, her mentor, Mbala Nkanga, urged her to follow her passion. In 2005, she became the first student in 10 years to win a Fulbright award to the DRC.

“When I got to the Congo, my mind and expectations were wide open,” she said, “I tried to see where dance fit into the larger scheme of things for the Kongo people.”

Covington-Ward’s research in the Congo included a 1920s religious movement founded in the Western province of Bas-Congo by prophet Simon Kimbangu. According to Covington-Ward, when word spread that Kimbangu embodied the Holy Spirit and healed people, crowds flocked to him. He was eventually arrested by the Belgian colonial administration and brought to trial. During the trial, Kimbangu “trembled,” a gesture some Kongolese believe suggested the presence of the Holy Spirit. The prophet was jailed for 30 years and died in prison. Her research into the religious movement was a turning point for her. “I realized people’s body movements had challenged prevailing authority.”

Her studies also took her to Luozi, a rural town that lacked electricity and where residents used a cupped form of handclapping—bula makonko—to open and close prayer and to ask for forgiveness. There, Covington-Ward encountered Bundu dia Kongo, a radical nationalist group that combined spiritual elements with political goals. Members also encouraged the use of the bula makonko gesture as a means of greeting people. By reviving bula makonko, which existed at the time of the Kongo Kingdom, the group hopes to restore the power and influence of that kingdom, said Covington-Ward.

The young anthropologist also examined the history of the Grand March, a dance of European origins that a number of freed Blacks and former slaves, largely from Virginia and Maryland, brought with them when they emigrated to Liberia. It became the dance of the American elite in Liberia, said Covington-Ward, and helped the country shape its identity as one of the two independent African countries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Now it’s an important part of the lifestyle of many Liberians of different ethnic backgrounds living in the Diaspora in the United States.

That group includes her husband, Lincoln Ward, a Web developer for University Marketing Communications in Pitt’s Office of Public Affairs. The couple and their 3-year-old daughter, Leyeti, reside in Churchill, Pa., but Covington-Ward still finds an occasional opportunity to dance at events organized by the Union of African Communities in Pittsburgh.

While Covington-Ward decided during her early days at Brown that she would rather teach than go into medicine, she thrives on conducting research.

“It’s wonderful!” she said, her face brightening. “I was in the National Archive in Kinshasa in 90-degree heat with no air conditioning, and I found a whole file on (DRC President) Mobutu and dancing! That moment—it’s a moment that cannot be found in books.”

Covington-Ward’s research enhances her teaching at Pitt. When her students recently read about members of the Kongo ethnic group decorating graves with the last plates, cups, and shoes used by the deceased, she showed them her own photos of Kongo grave decorations she had taken in Luozi. She feels that “giving students real examples of how this stuff works on the ground” makes for a more engaging learning experience.

In fact, Covington-Ward developed a new course for the Africana Studies curriculum—Power and Performance in Africa. As expected, routine Power Point presentations are rare. Instead, to discuss their individual research projects, the students staged monologues, dances, and speeches to relay the information to their classmates. It’s all about embodying gesture and movement and using one’s own body as a pedagogical tool, said Covington-Ward.

As for dance itself, Covington-Ward strongly advocates it as a way of finding a part of you that you never knew existed. “I’m more conservative and quiet in everyday life,” she conceded. “But when I can get up and dance . . . no one can tell me anything!”