Amy O’Neal believes that dance is limitless. Kaufman Converge aims to prove it.

October 30, 2023

Amy O'Neal | Photo by Cheryl Mann

“You can be a very different artist at one point in your life and then evolve into something else.”

Amy O’Neal has never followed the straight and narrow path.

It was perhaps inevitable. The USC Kaufman lecturer of Dance History, Composition, and Hip Hop grew up an Air Force kid, for one thing. Air Force kids and their families move around, and so did the O’Neals — first to Fort Worth, Texas, then Oklahoma, down to Alabama, west to San Antonio and eventually overseas to the Middle East. It was in Ankara — the capital cit of Turkey — where O’Neal remembers one of her first formative experiences.

“I was in junior high school, seeing all these different people come together, seeing American social dances, then mixed with Turkish social dances,” O’Neal said. “They were dancing to Bob Marley. I grew up with ideas coming together a lot. I never felt any pressure to choose one particular path.”

Fast-forward to today. O’Neal’s career spans over 20 years of experimental dance work, primarily in the realms of Hip Hop and house culture, much of it addressing race and gender. In a solo work from 2012 as one example, O’Neal premiered her first evening-length work that questioned her relationship to Black music and dance as a white woman.

Multi-faceted and thought-provoking. Those are just two words to describe O’Neal’s hallmarks, and it partly explains her development of Kaufman Converge, the new speaker series that brings diverse artists together to discuss their paths to success. The first event on November 1 welcomes Larkin Poynton, a self-described “builder of communities,” and Yoda Love Jones, who started her dance career practicing the classical Indian Dance Bharata Natyan, later transitioning to House, Locking, Hip Hop, and Vogue.

O’Neal talked about the development of Kaufman Converge, how her experiences have shaped its development, and the lessons she hopes students will take with them as they think about their careers.

What is Kaufman Converge?

Kaufman Converge is pairing artists who work across different dance ecologies and embody different dance forms to have some kind of embodied exchange and a conversation. The first one we’re doing with Larkin Poynton and Yoda Love Jones, each will be performing a solo and then talk about the unique paths they’ve created for their dance careers. Every event will have a slightly different structure based on the artists and what they want to share.

What was the motivation for it?

It was conversations with Dean [Julia] Ritter. I was talking to her about my research and passions around bringing awareness to students about different ways that one can create a life in dance.

Traditionally, when students are training in high school, their experience is narrow. Their perception as a dancer may be, like, you can be a choreographer or dance in a company. The old school belief is that if you can’t do either, then you teach. Sometimes those old ideas continue to be perpetuated. This is really to show students, hey, look at these artists and how unique their paths are. It’s giving students an example of staying true to your interests and values, that it’s possible to create a life that unfolds in a unique way.

I really like what you said about the old school approach to teaching dance, that not enough people talk about an alternate path. Why do you think that is?

People just teach from the place they know. We like to categorize as humans. We need to categorize to understand our environments. I also think it’s marketing. There are many different things that play into the notion: You’re either a choreographer or you dance in companies, but you can’t do both. It can also depend on the region that you live in, the level of awareness for the dance world at large, whether things change. I don’t feel it’s anything nefarious.

No, not nefarious. But to your point, it’s what people know. You don’t hear many dance instructors talking about being an entrepreneur or cultivating a business or anything like that.

I think about Ballet as an example. It has such a particular operating structure, right? You start out as an apprentice then you move through the ranks. You move through that structure for so long, it becomes the default. That leads to unconscious beliefs. There’s still this default notion of ballet being the blueprint of becoming a professional dancer. Those rules don’t apply to other forms, right? But in terms of dance systems that have operated professionally for a long time, that has a lot to do with how things have seeped into the consciousness of other styles and forms and ways of doing things.

Kaufman Converge makes me think about social media somewhat. There are so many dancers on social that are much more entrepreneurial. Do you see a shift in how dancers think about themselves in terms of the bigger picture?

That’s a good point because social media has shifted our consciousness. I remember when I started my company. It was like, oh, I have to be my brand. I have to think about my flyers, website. Now, social media takes that so much farther. You’re selling yourself as a brand. That can lead to other ways of making income or collaborating with different entities. It’s a whole other production. It takes effort in the conceptualization to do it well.

Is that a good or bad thing, to have all these digital tools at our disposal that put so much content into the world?

It’s both. We’re able to connect and share so much information. If I had Instagram in college, I would have digitally busked. I would have gone on Live and put my Venmo up and dance for money. I know some people who pay their rent that way. That’s amazing. At the same time, our sense of self has been drastically altered in ways that are not very positive. Our sense of loneliness has deepened, even though we’re theoretically connected. I see both positive and negative.

This fits into to dance ecologies, a term you use to describe Kaufman Converge. There’s a neat juxtaposition that you’re doing — having two artists with different backgrounds and career paths come together to talk about their differences but also their similarities. How does that juxtaposition work for the audience?

Yeah, it’s the point. The curation is very intentional. I want the audience to build a more nuanced awareness of the differences and similarities. Both Larkin and Yoda have street dance training in their bodies, but they came to it from very different places. Yoda started dancing to classical Indian and was the only African American person in her community doing it. Then she got into popping and multiple street dance forms and contemporary. Larkin has learned multiple street dance forms in studios but also engaging in the street dance community.

When I watch both dance, I see those communities flowing through their body, but I also see a very unique and individual point of view. So, in terms of their physical artistry, and what they embody, there’s a lot of beautiful nuances there. Then in terms of how they make a living as a dance artist, which is where we get into the ecology conversation, because there are different values around money making.

It seems like the goal is to show that you don’t have to be one dimensional.

Absolutely. Multiplicity 100%. Yeah. You can be exploring a number of different things at once. Or you can be a very different artist at one point in your life and then evolve into something else, that it’s not stagnant, that it’s always changing and evolving.

Kaufman Converge launches on November 1 at the Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center. Register for the event here.