LMU graduate Kiera Breaugh is making dance part of the movement

By Sophie Bress

The first time Kiera Breaugh danced to Dianne Reeves’ song “Endangered Species,” she was performing with her dance studio. The second time, she collapsed in tears.

Growing up in a predominantly white community near Toronto, Canada, Breaugh was used to being the only Black dancer in the room. When Reeves’ song — which lyricizes the singer’s experiences as a Black female artist — was selected for a performance during Breaugh’s early teen years, she remembers feeling even more aware of the fact that — to the rest of her dance studio — she was different.

In the first verse, Reeves sings: “My skin is dark, my body is strong.” Breaugh remembers the choreographer positioning her front and center during this section, proudly proclaiming her the studio’s “little Black girl.”

“I just remember being young and knowing that it really, really bothered me, but not having any idea how to articulate why,” Breaugh recalls.

As Breaugh grew up, she would continue to have similar experiences and to struggle to find words to voice her feelings.

But in the end, it wasn’t just words she needed. It was dance.

Breaugh had just barely dipped her toes into choreography before arriving at Loyola Marymount University in the fall of 2016. However, she quickly developed an interest in dance making when she met several older students of color in the dance program. Watching, moving and creating with these upperclassmen inspired Breaugh to think about telling her story through movement, too.

“Not a lot of Black people get to participate in concert dance. It strikes me that I have more responsibility because I made it to that room,” Breaugh says. “So because I was seeing these amazing choreographers telling these great big stories, it was always there in the back of my head that I just had to act on it.”

Breaugh also found a mentor in LMU’s dance department chair, Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo, who danced with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in the ‘90s.

It was LeBlanc Loo who first encouraged Breaugh to translate her complex feelings surrounding her identity into movement.

“What immediately stood out to me about Kiera was that she had a very distinct voice as a mover,” LeBlanc Loo said. “She had that fertile soil for choreography. If she wanted to do it, the ingredients were there already.”

And during Breaugh’s junior year, the seeds were ready to be sown and the perfect choreographic recipe would come together.

LeBlanc Loo was curating a dance concert around the concept of racial justice. She wanted to feature student work, and as she considered candidates, Breaugh immediately came to mind.

“I walked up to Kiera in the hallway and kind of actually naively said, ‘Do you identify as African American?’” LeBlanc Loo remembers. “She looked up at the ceiling and she goes ‘Hmm… sort of.’ And the way she responded just kind of alerted to me that it was, first of all, an oversimplified question, and second of all, that there was quite a complex story there.”

LeBlanc Loo was right. Not only is Breaugh both biracial and Canadian, her early life was filled with biting, insensitive comments from her white peers that made her feel silenced and invalidated. The complex story of her identity would become the fodder for Breaugh’s formative solo, “Barely Black.”

The piece opens on a dark stage, with only the words of Breaugh’s sound score to fill the space: “Some of my friends say I’m barely Black. We compare skin tones like nail polish.”

As the lights come up, Breaugh spins in place, stops suddenly, and presents the soft skin of her inner wrist forward, an intimate gesture to the audience, and an invitation
to listen.

Throughout the piece, her voice seems to swirl around her as she remembers how growing up, she was called “barely Black,” was told to straighten her hair, and was even called the n-word in jest. Both her pain and her catharsis are palpable as her movement spans from rigid arm gestures to fluid, full-bodied motions.

“I felt silenced by some of the white people [in my life]. I felt like they were basically saying: ‘Well, you’re not that Black, so why are you mad about Black issues?’” Breaugh says. “I didn’t have the tools or the verbiage at that time to express why that was wrong or exactly how much that bothered me. I think a lot of making ‘Barely Black’ was a big, big release of that.”

But “Barely Black” was just the beginning of this release. During her senior year, Breaugh would return to another wound that hadn’t quite scabbed over; she would once again dance to “Endangered Species.”

“All these years later, I was in the dance studio and I put on the song and I just started violently crying,” she says. “I just felt so much passion and need to make a solo about this, to get that out of me, to start to heal, and to sort of reclaim the song.”

The resulting piece would become her senior thesis, also titled “Endangered Species.” And not only did she continue to tell her story with this dance, she dove into the concept of intersectionality by telling the stories of others, too.

Similar to “Barely Black,” “Endangered Species” opens with Breaugh’s voice. The lights come up to reveal five dancers slinking deliberately along the floor. Breaugh’s narration moves with the performers: “There is a war on women. There is a war on people of color, most violently Black men. There is a war on the LGBTQ community. We are endangered species. We need each other
to survive.”

As the dancers stand, they pair off and stand head to head. Though they are using one another for balance, they begin to struggle, using their hands to fight, until both sides of each pair fall down.

“I see a lot of different oppressed groups fighting each other,” Breaugh says. “And for what? I feel like if we all supported each other, we would get further faster.”

Breaugh’s work is poignant and eye-opening, and now, amidst nationwide protests against rampant police brutality and systemic racism, it is more vital than ever.

“I think a lot of really important art is going to come out of this time,” Breaugh says.

And some of that art is sure to be her own.