‘Mama Washington,’ who brought West African dance to thousands of her ‘children’ at Berkeley High, retires

Subject of profile -- Naomi Diouf, 64 year old black woman wearing a t-shirt and African print skirt -- stands with her hand on a bongo drum. Dance studio is visible behind her.
Naomi “Mama Washington” Diouf is retiring this summer, after teaching West African dance at Berkeley High since 1991. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The wall in Mama’s office is plastered with pictures of past students.

There are graduation photos with gowns in Berkeley High gold and red. There are prom pictures, football photos and and mall shots, featuring the slanted camera angles and poses typical of the 1990s and early aughts: chins resting on clasped hands, arms wrapped around girlfriends’ waists.

The spread of pictures features only a small sampling of the kids who’ve come through “Mama’s” — née Naomi Washington, now Naomi Diouf — dance studio since she started teaching at Berkeley High in 1991. Many have not gone far, some joining her West African dance company Diamano Coura. Several have come back to help teach at the high school or to simply hang out and work on college assignments on the studio floor.

It is Diouf herself who will be missing from the studio next year. After nearly three decades, the renowned dancer is retiring this summer from her position leading Berkeley High’s Afro-Haitian dance program, one she greatly expanded and transformed into a centerpiece of the school’s arts and African American studies programs. Thousands of students have taken her classes, and thousands more have enjoyed the rhythmic, colorful performances on the Community Theater stage.


“Sometimes you just know it’s time,” Diouf said. “I know I’m leaving a great part of my life. But I’m not retiring, I’m transitioning into my next stage of life. That’s the African tradition — everyone goes through stages.”

Diouf, 64, has been dancing since she herself was far younger than any of her current students. She grew up in Monrovia, Liberia, where her father had a prestigious position in the government. Diouf remembers attending one of his parties at age six and gawking at the fabulous dancers who performed ritual routines, telling the stories of their community through movement.

Rows of teenage girls in t-shirts and sarongs perform a dance
Naomi Diouf’s beginning/intermediate dance class practices a routine. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“The volume of the music and the intensity of the dance was so mesmerizing,” she recalled. “I knew I had to keep moving.” Her own dance training began shortly thereafter.

Diouf first came to California at 15 with an international exchange program. When she went back home, she begged her father to let her return and, against Liberian custom at the time, he gave in. Back then she was fascinated by computer science and enrolled at UC San Diego hoping to study the emerging field. But she quickly became seduced by the opportunities to dance and ride out the end of the Black Arts Movement.

“I came at the right time, when people were conscious about their heritage and cultural traditions,” Diouf said. “The people I met said, ‘Oh, you’re from Africa? You have to teach us the dance and the history.'”

She performed at the Shrine Auditorium and Disneyland — and in Los Angeles schools.

Diouf was immediately inspired by the young students’ energy and hunger. “My career was changed,” she said.

Around 1980 she met her husband Zak Diouf, who had already started Diamano Coura, showcasing dances from his native Senegal and from throughout West Africa. Diouf began dancing with the company and grew its operations. At the time, awareness of African dance was minimal in the U.S. and the couple was part of the coalition that helped the art form “blow up” and become the “credible” dance style it’s seen as today, Diouf said.

When she was offered a job at Berkeley High, Diouf was ecstatic. She saw the position as a validation of her skills and passion.

The Berkeley High she entered in 1991 was a different place than it is now. Not yet in the sleek studio Diouf teaches in now, her class “dodged rats” and avoided the leaky parts of the ceiling in the so-called “Old Gym.” 

But she also came during a renaissance era for the African American Studies Department, remembered former longtime chair, Robert McKnight. The celebrated founder of the unprecedented high school department, Richard D. Navies, had just died, too soon to witness his once-thriving program be reborn after years of budget cuts, McKnight said.

“During that period we had two, maybe three Kiswahili teachers,” McKnight said. “Of course there was African American history, literature, economics, psychology — journalism was revived. That’s when we brought Ms. Washington aboard.” Diouf is now the chair of the department, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Dozens of school photos and prom pictures are tacked haphazardly to a bulletin board
Naomi Diouf keeps dozens of photos of former students — who she calls her children — tacked to her office wall. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

McKnight watched this deeply experienced and trained dancer grow the department rapidly, and develop a loyal following.

Multiple current and former students used the same phrase when telling Berkeleyside why they’re drawn to Diouf’s classes: She “commands respect.”

“But she does it in the most warm way,” said Nicole Bordeaux, a senior so enthralled with the program that she’s taken Afro-Haitian classes all four years at Berkeley High and is headed to UCLA in the fall because of its West African dance offerings.

“It was reciprocal — a respect she gave to the students,” said McKnight. “A willingness to listen to them. Shortly after, she was no longer Ms. Washington. She was ‘Mama Naomi.'”

Diouf is a mama in the most traditional sense of the word: she has eight kids. But she considers the countless students she’s had her “pool of children.”

“It’s the culture I grew up with. The first thing I tell my students is, ‘You are a group. You are a family. You must respect and care about one another,'” she said.

It’s a level of respect she’s not always felt was returned to her in Berkeley Unified.

Every semester Afro-Haitian students put on an elaborate performance at the Berkeley Community Theater. Photo: Mark Coplan

In the early and mid-2000s, Berkeley High was divided into small schools with their own unique programs, and Diouf said the popularity of the Afro-Haitian elective consequently declined, compounded by budget cuts. Around the same time, or a bit before, there was a new emphasis on teacher credentialing, and several educators who lacked licenses or had emergency credentials were laid off or forced to go back to school, as Diouf did. It was a change many families welcomed, and that brought Berkeley High into compliance with state standards, but Diouf said the district went about it in a way that made her feel unvalued.

“Those were some of the most miserable years,” she said. “I was put through the wringer. It had nothing to do with my actual qualifications.”

But that period came and went, and her classes continued. Diouf doesn’t teach the dances she watched as a child during that pivotal party in Monrovia — those are reserved for special ceremonies — but many of the styles are “generations old,” she said. All classes are set to the beat of live drummers, often students “who I’ve been told can’t focus, but they find enjoyment and excel” in the position, Diouf said. Throw in some Caribbean dance, moves from across the African diaspora, and even some guest Latin dance lessons, and you’ve got the beloved Berkeley High program.

Principal Erin Schweng said students have already been registered for fall courses, and the school is looking to maintain the program under a new teacher.

“We know we cannot fill Naomi Washington’s impossible-to-fill dancing shoes, but we have posted the position and are working to hire a replacement as soon as possible,” said Schweng in an email. “Her classes are a vital part of the African American Studies course offerings and all of us involved want those courses to carry on after her retirement.”

Beyond Berkeley High, Diouf has also spent years teaching at Laney College and AileyCamp, and through her company.

“She is never tired. It’s remarkable,” said Linda Carr, Berkeley High’s other veteran dance teacher, in an email. “She’s always got a show on the horizon or one in the rear-view mirror. She teaches more than anyone I know…Students can be flooding her with questions, tech rehearsal can be running late, costumes might have gone missing, or the program never came back from the printer, but Naomi remains unflustered. She rises above it all. Often with a little laugh.”

Diouf, as well as McKnight and former School Board member Karen Hemphill, will be honored at a banquet Saturday to wrap up the year-long 50th-anniversary celebration for African American studies.

The department still offers a range of courses but is no longer the size it was during the heyday in the 1990s. And Diouf’s departure can feel like a reflection of other shifts in Berkeley’s schools and community, where the black population has decreased significantly.

Diouf said her program was always designed to “serve the whole school,” and she values the opportunity to develop “allies, who can take the word of the department into their communities and get support.”

“But if we don’t have the population who needs it the most, if we cannot cater to them, they lose something of themselves,” she said. “The whole idea of this Black Arts Movement and African American studies was to get self-identity for African American students. They have not lost their culture. The heritage is still there, they just need to learn about it.” 

Diouf also spoke at a recent School Board meeting to ask the district to hire more black teachers.

But McKnight noted that the diversity Diouf has always attracted in her classes — “in terms of ethnicity and student ability” — is something special at Berkeley High, where de-facto social and academic segregation is common. Students of all backgrounds take her classes.

Diouf is also excited about the stylistic diversity her successors could bring — whether that means hip-hop lessons or tap dance.

“I tell my students, in order to call yourself a dancer, you must be exposed to various styles,” she said. “The kids get tickled when I say, ‘Go into a demi plié.'”

Watch the entire winter 2018 Afro-Haitian performance, in this video by Mark Coplan.