USC Kaufman’s visit to South Korea transcends language barriers

January 31, 2024

Collaboration and creativity reach a high point without the need for words.

Dance is an international language. That was the undeniable takeaway during USC’s recent winter break when several USC Kaufman BFA students traveled to South Korea as part of a cultural exchange that put dance at the center of its activities.

Dubbed Hip-Hop Across the Borders, the first of USC Kaufman’s international study-abroad opportunities for the 2023–2024 academic year paired USC Kaufman BFA students with peers from South Korea’s Seoul Institute of the Arts. Over nine days, dancers and faculty from both institutions came together for daily workshops and classes to both share and study the ways Hip-Hop as a global art form is practiced across different cultures and contexts. The one thing the students didn’t share, however, was a common spoken language. But for those USC students who traveled to Seoul, dance was the metaphorical vernacular that kept everyone on the same page.  

“There were moments during our process where we would express our ideas through gestures and dance movements,” said Diego Lopez (BFA ’24). He continued that without the need for words, “we were able to communicate what our intentions were. That was beautiful.”

Learning from creative artists from the other side of the world, said USC Kaufman BFA student Julia Lowe (BFA ’27), was a chance to dig deep. In an art form where authenticity matters, dance brought out a natural representation of feelings and intentions; as dancers began to move their bodies, any obstacles to developing a connection seemed all but gone. For Lowe, it was often invigorating.

“When it came to talking with one another,” Lowe said, “there was a lot of patience involved. We had to take our time and offer grace when we wanted to speak. The language barrier was a prevalent part of what made this whole experience so spectacular.”

The relationship between USC Kaufman and SIA informally began in early October with the arrival of South Korean dancer and renowned K-pop choreographer Aiki. Aiki’s visit was made possible through a partnership with USC Kaufman, the Korean Cultural Center of Los Angeles, and a connection with Professor Hye Jin Lee, Clinical Assistant Professor of Communication at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

Aiki spent a week at USC teaching masterclasses and taking part in a panel discussion about K-Pop’s rise in pop culture. Meanwhile, USC Kaufman and SIA were drawing up plans for a trip to Seoul. It made for natural association with some of South Korea’s civic goals, including Kore·A·Round Culture, a campaign sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Korea and the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange that has welcomed artists from different countries to immerse themselves in the culture and history of South Korea. USC Kaufman currently counts as the only institution invited from the United States, one of nine participating countries. 

Class wasn’t the only thing on the agenda. USC Kaufman students found time to take in the local arts scene. One such outing included a trip to see a production of South Korea’s touring musical Sister Act. Afterward, students from USC Kaufman and SIA were invited backstage to meet the cast and crew. Another highlight: a dance masterclass with Kim Joo-won, widely considered the most renowned prima ballerina of the Korean National Ballet. Time spent with Professor Woo Jae Lee, a faculty member in the Dance Program at Seoul Institute of the Arts and one of the first generation of Korean B-Boys, made for a memorable time.

The exchange culminated with a final performance curated by the students and faculty of USC Kaufman and SIA. Aiki and members of South Korea’s popular Hook Crew joined the celebration, too, with parting gifts for USC Kaufman BFA students, a celebration that indeed transcended borders.  

“I made friends that will last a lifetime,” said Lowe. “I experienced a new culture and used my art as a way to connect.” 

At USC Kaufman, there are abundant opportunities for students to immerse themselves in an arts-rich environment while experiencing an enormous breadth and diversity of cultures and traditions. The recent trip to Korea is one such cultural exchange. Other opportunities include an annual cross-cultural program with London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and our early summer Maymester in which Kaufman students travel to Paris or Berlin for a month-long cultural immersion.  Scholarship support for these programs in part comes from the USC Kaufman Travel Fund, which provides USC Kaufman students once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to perform and learn on the world stage.

Hip-Hop Across Borders Korea was made possible with generous underwriting from the Korean Cultural Center of Los Angeles, Th Seoul Institute of the Arts, and Katherine & James Lau.