Performing Arts

Dancing Forward: Recent U-M Graduate Uses Dance to Inspire Social Change

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Johanna Kepler (Micky West)

Johanna Kepler has used her platform to spark discussions about racial injustice, immigration reform and most recently, the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the performing arts community.

Professional dancer and activist Johanna Kepler has made it her mission to use the creative arts as a tool to inspire social change.

The recent University of Michigan graduate who majored in dance with a minor in Latino studies has used her platform to spark discussions about racial injustice, immigration reform and most recently, the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the performing arts community.

Johanna Kepler
Johanna Kepler

Kepler, 23, who originally hails from Boston and is now based in New York City, has witnessed firsthand the devastation that the pandemic has had on artists, many of whom are without work or turning to virtual platforms to reach their audiences. She graduated in the class of 2020, so her dream of auditioning for Broadway and Off-Broadway shows is temporarily on hold.

Instead, Kepler, who has been dancing since age 6, has used her time to interview more than 200 performing artists, dancers, choreographers and directors from around the world about how the pandemic has personally impacted their lives and careers. Her hope is that creating a collective community focused on rebuilding the performing arts industry will generate awareness for the struggles artists have faced and steps they’re taking to move forward.

“It’s continuing to share the story of the artists, not just the art we make,” Kepler explains. About a week before she graduated from the University of Michigan, she wrote to the college inquiring about 12 potential grants to pay other recently graduated students who were also out of work due to the pandemic, and successfully received a few. These grants also helped her build “The Power of the Performing Arts: Uniting Artists While Apart” and the website platform needed to make the interview project a reality.

Johanna Kepler
Micky West

Kepler conducts interviews via Zoom. When she first started the platform, she was completing up to 10 interviews a day. While at the University of Michigan, she also founded Arts in Color, a student organization committed to diversity, equity and inclusion within the arts, an endeavor Kepler received the Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award for in 2019.

“Being an adopted Latina woman in the U.S., my own identity drives me forward,” says Kepler, who was adopted from Guatemala and grew up in a Jewish household. “That intersectionality in my identity sparked interest in the personal narrative and the personal story.” She especially focuses on gathering stories from people of color, which are portrayed in both her interview project and through her choreographed dance.

“Creating these platforms and making those connections, I’m trying to figure out how we can get a seat at the table,” she continues, “to make change in the performing arts, to be a more diverse and inclusive community.”

Johanna Kepler
Micky West

Kepler has choreographed various pieces while at the University of Michigan that tied her identity to her personal narrative.

To shine a light on the current U.S. and Mexico border crisis that has separated children from their families, she gathered 15 interviews from various news sources that featured her Latino friends on campus reading them, then reacted to those sound bites through dance moves. This powerful solo show was selected to be performed at the eastern conference of the American Dance Festival in 2019.

“Showcasing that solo on stage is a solid example of how the performing arts can show emotion that touches people in a different way,” Kepler says. Afterward, she explains, numerous students went up to her and told her how the story of the crisis hit them in a different way when viewed through art. “The performing arts can open people’s minds and hearts.”

Now, Kepler is working on continuing to build awareness for the performing arts community through the COVID-19 pandemic while also helping performing arts organizations with marketing and development. She hopes that in 2021, Broadway will be able to reopen and that dance companies will once again hold auditions so she can continue to pursue her career as a performing artist and choreographer.

“The performing arts need a lot of love and attention right now,” Kepler says, who believes a deeper appreciation for the field is quickly developing. “A lot of people are turning to the performing arts for their entertainment and to be uplifted during this hard time.”

Watch Kepler’s dance reel and her School of Music Theater and Dance Commencement speech below.


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