Kaufman students express, interpret social issues through dance

“It’s an out-of-body experience,” Justin Epstein, a junior majoring in dance, said. “I feel like my body is a form that is moving through space, but my soul is interacting with audience members and people on stage. It’s more than just the confines of my skin.”

Epstein vividly recalled the feelings he experienced while performing in “Making Movements: Dance and Social Change,” a collaboration performance made possible by the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance and USC Visions and Voices. Epstein was one of 32 other Kaufman students in the filled-to-capacity show, which ran at 6:30 p.m. and again at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday night.

The production’s primary objective was to showcase the power of dance in interpreting and dealing with pressing social issues. The students performed the show in three parts, with each telling its own story about the human condition.

The first section — which included all participating Kaufman students — focused on a variety of societal concerns and highlighted racism in particular. Accompanied by the narration of a spoken-word poem, the piece underlined the ability of dance to reach different people through its universality.

The poem continued to run in the background as the number of dancers decreased from 32 to four. Each performer expressed his or her own interpretation of the work through movement, heavily emphasizing how dance can heal the discord between conflicting identities. Quite fittingly, the piece ended with the simple statement, “No more bricks that form walls / Only bridges that connect us all.”

The third segment continued this uplifting sentiment, as performers rejoined the stage to form a semicircle and took turns dancing in the middle. Whether it be a solo or a dance-off, Bollywood or ballet, every student was met with the same encouraging cheers from his or her fellow dancers.

While each dancer has his or her own specific area of practice, the first and second sections were hip-hop performances, specifically showcasing West Coast popping and waving.

In Epstein’s opinion, hip-hop — honest and emotional in its raw form — is particularly effective in bridging social divides. “Hip-hop is the dance of the people, the dance of the masses,” Epstein said. “It is that transverse span that can bring people together and unify them to move forward and tackle the oppressing issues that we have right now.” 

The Kaufman students’ routine was created by professional dancer and choreographer Jon Boogz, who came to USC after working with Visions and Voices last year. Boogz, a well-known force in the dance community, has had his choreographies featured on So You Think You Can Dance and has worked with artists such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gloria Estefan.

Boogz was featured as the night’s main attraction. In fact, audiences were introduced to the show with Boogz’s opening piece “Am I a Man,” a short film that focuses on the racial imbalances embedded in the nation’s mass incarceration. Bryan Stevenson, a leading attorney and civil rights activist, narrated Boogz and his partner Charles “Lil Buck” Riley’s dance with relevant facts and statistics on the topic.

“You need collaborations,” Boogz said. “Bryan is a real lawyer for mass incarceration, and I’m blessed to know him and be connected to him. I’m always trying to figure out who else we can involve, who can amplify this project and take it to another level. I’m always looking for that extra ‘it’ factor that can take it over the top to give [the topic] that much more validation and that much more authenticity.”

The video seamlessly transitioned into Boogz’s solo “Love Heals All Wounds,” which depicted a man hardened by the social injustices currently plaguing his society.

As the piece progressed, Boogz’s character eventually became more open to positivity, ultimately realizing that love is the answer to the world’s problems.

To Boogz, the discomforting topics he introduces are made more palatable by dance. Building on Epstein’s previous comment, the choreographer said he believes that dance can not only unify different groups on difficult issues, but also encourage them to start discussing these topics in the first place.

“I think dance has the power to speak to people in the way that words can’t,” Boogz said. “Movement is the most primal form of communication. Sometimes if I have an opinion on something, people may not want to hear it. But when you tell it through music, movement and expression, I just think it creates an entry point aesthetically that allows people to digest the topic that normally wouldn’t be too easy to talk about.”

In its entirety, “Making Movements: Dance and Social Change” taught audiences that the roles of the artist and the activist are not mutually exclusive. Both the students’ and Boogz’s performances underscored the power of dance to expand audience members’ viewpoints, encouraging a sense of open-mindedness and a desire for social action.

“We can use dance to create change,” Boogz said. “Whether it’s a big change or a small change, it really doesn’t matter. Dance is more than entertainment — dance has the ability to inspire, educate, heal, liberate, and create social impact.”