Spiritual Cyphers: Hip Hop + the Church

Spiritual Cyphers: Hip Hop and the Church
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Juror’s Choice in Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking

June 2023

Audience Choice Award

Women of African Descent Film Festival 2023

The first installment in the film series is a visit to the Black Christian church where the Emcee is the Preacher, the Deejay is the Worship Leader, the Graffiti (the art and style) is Black Church aesthetics and the B-Boy/B-Girl is the Liturgical Dance Ministry. We find Hip Hop helps the Church connect intergenerationally. The Blues from generations past relates to Hip Hop’s similar themes. This exploration will highlight Ariyan Johnson’s research connecting Hip Hop culture, dance, and spirituality in the church. Archival dance pieces are discussed with interviews of dancers and choreographers elaborating on how Hip Hop contributes to an alliance of individual purpose that identifies the release in freedom to becoming your most authentic self. Throughout the film, Ariyan Johnson as the protagonist will narrate as we collect meanings of the cypher stemming from the circle as an inclusive universal symbol representing concepts of wholeness, the pursuits of peace, a true sense of self, the infinite, cyclic movement, fulfillment, perfection, eternity, and God. The film also investigates cultures that have common threads of spiritual kinship with Hip Hop through gathering in a circle, as well as discovering how community needs are expressed, how music is shared, how dance is displayed, and how spiritual connection is achieved. Ultimately searching to answer the question: In what ways does Hip Hop illustrate spiritual components demonstrated through dance within the Christian Church?


Ariyan Johnson

Ariyan Johnson, a native New Yorker, is a graduate from the “Fame La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts where she studied dance, she holds a B.A. in Speech Pathology and Audiology and an M.A. in Applied Theatre. Ariyan creates strong female perspectives within the African Diaspora culture specializing in theatrical methods and Hip Hop, Jazz, Afro-Fusion Modern, and African dance forms. She is a multi-disciplinary artist, known for her Independent Spirit Award best female lead nominated performance in the Sundance Special Jury Prize Awarded film - Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., where she represented Hip Hop female dance duos. Some other credits include Law and OrderJ.A.G.The General’s Daughter with John Travolta; Bulworth with Warren Beatty and Halle Berry, where she depicted a rapper influencing Hip Hop culture on the political landscape; and a series regular on The Steve Harvey Show. Johnson’s voice-over work includes cartoons, radio, and television campaigns. 

Ms. Johnson’s early work contributed to the beginning of the commercialization of Hip Hop dance, having worked with pioneers of the field. As a professional dancer, she has either danced, choreographed, and toured worldwide for an array of artists such as L.L. Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Ms. Melodie, Prince Markie Dee from The Fat Boys, Ya Kid K, 2 in a Room, Mary J Blige and many more; having gone to such places as the Philippines, Japan, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand to name a few. She was a featured member of Abdel Salaam’s Forces of Nature Dance Theatre and Ronn Pratt’s Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Companies and began her community work exploring jazz-based dances of protest with Eleo Pomare’s Dancemobile. Her community work continued throughout her ten years as Artistic Director and Resident Choreographer of Faithful Dance Company (F.D.C.). Among the many things she accomplished as a liturgical dance forerunner during her tenure at F.D.C., Ariyan also taught dance to deaf participants, organized social justice initiatives, and created interactive performances at Faithful Central Bible Church, housed at the 18,000 seated arena - The Great Western Forum. Through her own company, D.I.M.A.B.A. founded in 1991; she is a community partner with Los Angeles United School District, where she artistically engages high school students in educational activism. In response to the current social justice initiatives focused on creating a more equitable world by dismantling systematic racist institutions in the United States, Ariyan Johnson has created African Diaspora Dance Activism (ADDA) to champion and answer this call to action.  As an educator, she taught drama conventions and Hip Hop dance to genocide survivors at the University of Rwanda (formerly Kigali Institute of Education in Rwanda, Africa); having also taught at Pasadena City College, Studio School (formerly Relativity Education), UCLA EXT, Kansas University, and N.J.P.A.C. (New Jersey Performing Arts Center).

Ariyan is the three-time recipient of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs Artist-in-Residence grant, where she continues her commitment to inspiring communities through artistic expressions through her intergenerational theatrical work with storytelling. Most recently, Ariyan wrote, directed, and choregraphed a short film called Triggered, using her dancethestory© curriculum and methods through Hip Hop concerning the effects on social media on women. The response from the film received Best Experimental Short and Best First Time Director from the January 2021 London Independent Film Awards; an Award of Recognition in African American, Women, Experimental, and Music Video categories from the Best Short Competition; as well as being selected in several film festivals. Upcoming publication is the article “The Historically Missing Piece of African American Women Hip Hop Dancers and their Contribution to the Culture” in the Winter/Spring 2021 issue of Black Dance magazine. Currently, Ms. Johnson received The Claire Trevor School of the Arts Institute of 21st Century Creativity Research Grant for 2020-2021 where she is working on her Spiritual Cyphers documentary. Ms. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of California, Irvine.

Director-Filmmaker Reel showcasing documentary, stage, television, and film projects created, produced and directed by Ariyan Johnson.

Mike Ziemkowski

Mike Ziemkowski is an Emmy Award winning video editor. He edited and produced the critically acclaimed (Daily Variety) independent film, SuperGuy: Behind the Cape, which went into development with Paramount Television. He has built a career on the editing of television and theatrical marketing campaigns, winning an Emmy for his work on The Ellen Degeneres Show. His ability to create engaging work, whether short or long, has kept him in demand in the entertainment business for decades. Most recently, he's been editing the promotional campaign for the syndicated talk show The Real. In his free time, his creative outlet is designing and creating animatronics and computer controlled holiday displays for his home. Mike is a winner of The Great Christmas Light Fight on ABC Television.



Desha, a San Francisco native is both a Howard University and UCLA School of Theatre Film & Television Alumna. An award-winning filmmaker, Desha was mentored by filmmaker Kasi Lemmons. Her short film works have screened at Sundance, BlackStar, American Black, Pan African and Urbanworld Film Festivals. Her screenwriting has found support at Tribeca All Access, Film Independent and Hedgebrook. A participant in an early incarnation of the CBS Directing Initiative, Desha was selected by producing director, Joe Chappelle to shadow on the final season of The Wire, and later Numb3rs with director, John Berring. Desha is a professor in The Department of Film & Media Studies at University of California, Irvine. She is excited about innovative approaches to visual storytelling and the sharing of rich human stories.


Phyllis Bancroft

Phyllis Bancroft, a Supervising Director for the Emmy-nominated web-series, “Send Me,” creator/producer of SPENT, winner of the BET Lens on Talent for Best Film and director of the award-winning short film BURNED, Phyllis’ filmmaking is preceded by having directed 30+ plays at some of the country’s most reputable theaters, including the Smithsonian’s African-American Museum, the Hartford Stage Company and Playwright’s Horizons. Paying it forward, Phyllis is the CEO/Master Teaching Artist of Red Balloon Playroom, a 12-week film bootcamp she founded for middle and high school students, funded by LAUSD Arts Partnership. A strong proponent of advancing women’s creativity, she also founded the Bancroft Scholarship for Women of Color at the A.F.I. Conservatory.


Leslie Saltus Evans

Leslie Saltus Evans, over 30 years ago, started in the film and television industry working as a camera operator at a local cable station.  While attending NYU’s, Tisch School of the Arts, she began her Director of Photography career shooting student films, low budget projects and worked on her first feature, Spike Lee’s, Do the Right Thing as a camera intern.  In 1990, she joined IATSE Local 644 as a camera assistant and worked on a host of feature films, commercials, music videos, and documentaries for Cinematographers such as Ernest Dickerson, ASC, Fred Elmes, ASC, Robert Wagner, Bobby Shepard, Lisa Renzler, and Woody Omens, ASC.

In 1993, Leslie established her production company, Camera Goddess Productions, Inc. and forged full steam ahead as Producer/Director of Photography.  The company has produced projects for clients such as Lifetime Television, Motown Records and Warner Bros. Records and UrbanWorks/Ventura Distribution, to name a few.  As a Director of Photography, Leslie’s work has been awarded by the Broadcast Designers Association and has graced numerous film festivals all over Europe and in the U.S. such as Slamdance and Boston Film Festival. In 2000, Leslie was Producer/Director of Photography on the short film, Next Afternoon starring rapper/actor, Heavy D.  This film was screened at The Pan African Film Festival and aired on Showtime’s 8th Annual Black Filmmakers Showcase and the film won the “Pick a Flick Contest”. It was an IFP/Gordon Parks Award Finalist. In 2003, she had two films in the Bermuda International Film Festival, a Documentary Feature, When Voices Rise… which won the People’s Choice Award and a short film, Royal Flush, which received accolades from juror and film critic, Rex Reed.  Leslie produced a behind the scenes documentary for Hair Show, starring Mo’Nique, host of BET’s late-night talk show.  Leslie was the Director of Photography for Walking on a Sea of Glass, documentary about Kingsley Tweed, carpenter, preacher, social and political activist, who was a leader of the Theatre Boycott in 1959 that led to the desegregation of Bermuda.

Leslie soon after started LivingStone Entertainment in 2009 which has supplied crew and equipment for Heineken’s Red Star Soul and Hennessey’s Artistry shooting artists such as Common, Queen Latifah and Estelle, was a Camera Operator on the hit BET reality show, Tiny and Toya Season 1 and Producer/Shooter on MTV’s MADE. She also was camera operator for OWN’s Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s series and TNT’s My Daughter is Pregnant and So am I.

Interviewee / Consulting Researcher / Producer

Kathleen S. Turner, PhD

Kathleen S. Turner, PhD, a native New Yorker, began dancing at the age of five at the Gloria Jackson Dance Studio.  After graduating from the New York High School of Performing Arts, she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from SUNY Purchase and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College.  Kathleen graduated from Yale Divinity School with a Master of Sacred Theology (STM) degree in 2009, a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School in 2008 and received a Certificate of Merit from the Institute of Sacred Music, an affiliate of Yale Divinity School.  Kathleen graduated May 2012 with her Doctor of Philosophy degree in Religious Education from Fordham University. Kathleen has danced with many New York based choreographers and has worked extensively with Director/Choreographer, Dianne McIntyre as a member of the Sounds In Motion Dance Company touring the United States and Europe.  Kathleen was a tenured Associate Professor in the Dance Program at CUNY Hunter College from 1994-2005.  She has taught and choreographed for a variety of private dance studios, college programs, and theatre productions on the eastern coast in addition to teaching throughout Germany and Austria.

Kathleen is a recipient of numerous awards from both Yale University and the Society of Arts in Religious and Theological Studies (SARTS).  Kathleen has delivered papers at the SARTS 2008 meeting at the American Association of Religion (AAR) in Chicago; at the 2011 and 2012 Religious Education Association Conferences; and at the Dancing the African Diaspora: Theories of Black Performance 2014 Conference at Duke University.  Her Ph.D. dissertation, “And We Shall Learn through the Dance:” Liturgical Dance as Religious Education, investigates liturgical dance as religious education in the church as a community place of learning.   Kathleen contributed a chapter in the book, Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, Volume 2, edited by James Abbington.  Her manuscript, “And We Shall Learn Through the Dance: Liturgical Dance as Religious Education,” has been accepted by Wipf and Stock under their PICKWICK Publications imprint for publication in 2021. Kathleen has been commissioned to contribute a chapter on the relationship between sacred music and liturgical dance in the 2024 publication of The New Oxford Handbook of Music and Theology published by Oxford University Press.

Kathleen has taught at Drew Theological Seminary in the Master of Arts in Ministry degree program in the areas of liturgical dance, liturgy, and worship.  Kathleen was a guest lecturer for the course, Forming Worshiping Communities for the Distance Learning Program at Calvin Theological Seminary and a current seminar and workshop presenter, choreographer and dancer for the Calvin Symposium on Worship, an international worship conference sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI.  Kathleen currently teaches as an adjunct professor at New York Theological Seminary in the Master of Arts in Religious Education and Master Arts in Youth Ministry degree programs where she designed and teaches courses using Moodle for both online and in class courses.  Kathleen served as the Director of Children, Youth and Families at the St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Hollis, New York, under the direction of Father Terrence A. Lee.  She is a Christian Education Consultant to a variety of churches within the tri-state area and was a guest workshop instructor for the 2014 Institute of Sacred Music at Yale Divinity School Congregations Project, The Human Body and the Body of Christ.  Kathleen is a longstanding member of the national Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society, the Religious Education Association and the North American Professors of Christian Education.

Kathleen is the founding director of the Allen Liturgical Dance Ministry (ALDM) of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York, choreographing over seventy-five dances for ALDM.  She coordinated and co-coordinated ten international liturgical dance conferences from 1998 to 2014. In 2018 Kathleen returned home to the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York as the Director of Christian Education/Discipleship, a position that oversees, creates, and instructs major Bible Study Programs both virtually and in person for both the adult and senior populations, Christian Nurturing and New Membership Studies.  Kathleen is married to Mr. Curtis Turner and they travel both separately and jointly throughout the United States ministering and co-choreographing for dance ministries, marriage enrichment ministries, church congregations and liturgical dance conferences.