Meet Milwaukee’s Dancing Queen: Ferne Caulker

A conversation with Ferne Caulker: dancer, choreographer, researcher, Milwaukeean

Ferne Caulker Bronson, founder of the Ko-Thi Dance Company in Milwaukee. Photo by Sara Stathas
Retirement hasn’t slowed down Ferne Caulker one iota. “I’m like the new kid on the block. I’m trying to figure out what my next 40 years is going to be,” says the 72-year-old. The choreographer and dancer nurtured a career as a professor of dance at UW-Milwaukee while simultaneously running her dance company, Ko-Thi. Often, these two paths converged, with Ko-Thi – one of the longest-running African diasporic dance companies in the country – performing and holding classes at UWM, where in 2010 she created a unique track for dance majors: Performance and Choreography of the African Diaspora.

Caulker retired from the university in 2016, and after last August’s “Juba-Lee” concert celebrating Ko-Thi’s 50th anniversary, she officially passed the torch to DeMar Walker as artistic director. These days, Caulker serves more of an advisory role as she ushers in the next generation. Under Walker’s leadership, Ko-Thi’s upcoming public events include a Martin Luther King Day celebration, with the youth company performing Jan. 20 at the Martin Luther King library, a Feb. 23 free concert at Wisconsin Lutheran College, and as part of the Marshfield Cultural Fair on Feb. 29.

Before Caulker’s senior year in high school, her mother moved the family from Sierra Leone to Milwaukee, taking a job at Marquette University after Caulker’s father was killed in a plane crash.

A research trip brought Caulker to Ghana, where the modern dancer – trained by master teachers like Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Lavinia Williams – went to study with the National Dance Company. While there, Caulker visited Elmina Castle, a key stop on the Atlantic slave trade route.

Formed in 1969, Ko-Thi was a direct result of Caulker’s time in Ghana. But why Milwaukee? “There’s always work to be done where you are,” she says.

Dancers donned colorful costumes and masks for their recent Ujima concert at UW-Milwaukee. Photo courtesy of Ko-Thi Dance Company

Indeed, thousands of kids and adults have passed through Ko-Thi over the last 50 years, immersing themselves in a range of African and Afro-Caribbean drumming and dance. Caulker’s work as an artist is also tied to social justice initiatives in the city, and the ongoing pursuit of racial equality.

Part of Ko-Thi’s mission has been to provide opportunities for white Milwaukeeans to learn about the African diaspora, but the main goal is to foster self-worth and understanding among black people seeking to learn more about their roots.

The latter is not as simple as it may seem. Caulker knows many young people who wanted to connect with their ancestors in a way their families would not condone, saying there can be a large disconnect between African Americans and their cultural roots.

Ferne Caulker Bronson, founder of the Ko-Thi Dance Company in Milwaukee. Photo by Sara Stathas

“After running this company for 50 years, I have lived through this process,” Caulker says, recalling trips to northern Wisconsin in the 1970s, to communities where some people likely had never seen a black person before. Even in the city, in the early days, people shouted racial epithets when Ko-Thi performed. “My history is Milwaukee’s history,” Caulker says. She participated in the March on Milwaukee – a fair housing protest that crossed the 16th Street viaduct into the city’s predominantly white neighborhoods on the South Side in 1967 – and marched for housing rights around the UWM campus. “This was the environment in which I built this company.”

There’s been progress, but in reflecting on her career, Caulker also sees how much work remains.

“Milwaukee is a great city, by a great lake, that has a lot of great potential. And it has to now fill this wonderful new growth with a sense of peoplehood and a sense of understanding,” she says. “There are tons of people in this town who are getting this. But we’ve got to get out of our enclaves. We’ve got to. Then we can be a greater city by a greater lake.”

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue

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