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Dance From the Inside Out

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At The Center for Contemporary Dance, education involves community

By Eliza Randolph

The Center for Contemporary Dance in Winter Park, Florida, might qualify as a mini dance utopia. CCD houses an open training program for all ages and a pre-professional program, as well as four independent dance companies. A nonprofit known for its diversity and inclusive atmosphere, it was founded in 2001 in Washington, DC, and incorporated in Florida in 2004 by executive director Craig Johnson and artistic director Dario Moore. They moved from DC to Florida in part because they felt the area needed greater access to the arts. And, clearly, because they needed a challenge.

Pre-professional graduate Cherri Thompson (left) dances in Sacred Slave Stories with Jeré James and Moore. (Photo by Kieshalia Stephens)

Johnson, an arts administrator, and Moore, a teacher, performer, and choreographer, had both earned undergraduate degrees from Rollins College and then left Florida to pursue careers. Moore, with a BA in theater and dance, earned a master’s in dance education from American University; Johnson, with a bachelor’s in biology/pre-med, attended medical school at Columbia University for several years before following a calling to the arts. He served as development director for a theater company in New Jersey and then as creative director for U-Turn Dance Company, with Moore, in DC. Then family ties and the belief that central Florida could benefit from their work called them back to the South.

Aside from Orlando Ballet, they note, not much dance was happening in central Florida, but that didn’t faze them. “We knew what we were up against,” says Johnson, “and we were aware enough to know that the learning curve involved raising community awareness and educating our constituents about what contemporary dance even was. People kept referring to it as ‘interpretive.’ ” On the CCD website, “contemporary dance” is acknowledged to be a catchall term referring to “anything from the fusion of classical dance forms to a modern interpretation of world dance.”

CCD took a proactive approach, says Johnson. “We built into our programming a series of in-house workshops that facilitated a more comprehensive understanding of contemporary dance.” The workshops took the form of performances, film presentations, and lecture-demonstrations. Eventually, he says, the strategy paid off, “and now people are eager to come through our doors.”

Instructor and dancer Jeré James, who has been with CCD since its beginning, says, “I have watched the progression of our audience going from 50 or 60 to 300 to 400.”

In addition to building audiences through education, Moore and Johnson challenged themselves to sidestep the usual dance studio model of classes and recitals. Instead, they created a center that fostered the growth of the dance field itself from the inside out by intertwining the educational and professional activities at the Center.

For its 287 students (as of last winter), including 20 on the pre-professional-track, CCD offers a wide range of ongoing classes in ballet, jazz, modern, contemporary, tap, and African dance, as well as regular master classes in techniques ranging from hip-hop to classical Indian dance. Students of all ages can pay as they go rather than commit to a monthly tuition fee. The by-audition pre-professional program has two tracks, youth (ages 9 to 17) and adult (ages 18 to 25), which include training in arts management, production, and wellness/nutrition along with technique.

CCD does not stage recitals, but students have the opportunity to perform and/or choreograph through two concerts per year. Rehearsals take place outside of class time, says Johnson. The CCD website explains that students work with the resident ensembles “in areas of choreography, production management, artistic development and creative expression.”

The idea of housing resident artists is integral to Johnson and Moore’s concept for the school. It’s a way for developing choreographers and artistic directors “to more fully explore their craft through experimentation and actual production,” says Johnson. He says they look for “artists who challenge boundaries, explore interesting aspects of the human experience, and who are willing to grow and collaborate through the art of dance.” CCD provides rehearsal space, production opportunities, and business mentoring, he says, all of which provides the necessary stability for these artists “to become fully independent companies that keep contemporary dance flowing into the artistic landscape of central Florida.”

In return, says Johnson, resident artists teach and “provide opportunities for graduates of the pre-professional program to perform, as well as for higher-level pre-professionals to apprentice with the company.” And the resident artist program is part of CCD’s marketing strategy. Audiences know that the residents whose work they come to see are supported by CCD, and that in turn generates new interest in the school.

The result of this expansive approach—educating and creating both inside and outside the studio—is a student body that’s uniquely prepared for the multifaceted demands of the dance field. Says Johnson, “Resident artists help us provide pre-professionals with other important experiences, such as technical design, backstage support, guest management, and other non-performance aspects of the arts. All of this contributes to [developing] a well-rounded student capable of making a living in the arts.”

And there’s more. Students also learn about the “challenges associated with getting their work to the stage,” says Johnson. For the student concerts, he says, “they’re invited into fund-raising efforts. They’re taught how to engage people into believing in their work enough to actually support it. We believe that if we’re teaching them those concepts at age 12, 13, 14, they will become better idea generators than I am, sitting at this desk. We can start that process now for them so that by the time they’re 20, 30, 40, they should be masters at it.”

“We were aware enough to know that the learning curve involved raising community awareness and educating our constituents about what contemporary dance even was.” —CCD executive director Craig Johnson

Moore stresses the importance of familiarizing students with “the full cycle” of production, “in order to create this process for themselves. That’s important. If they learn that process here in dance, they can apply it to anything.”

Former student Cherri Thompson (now a dancer with Graham II, the second company of Martha Graham Dance Company) learned to appreciate this approach. “It’s funny,” she says with a laugh, “because at the time the responsibilities that you’re given don’t feel like something that you necessarily want to do. But later on you look at it as a very rich learning experience. I had to learn how to manage my time, work with other people, different personalities, learn how to do lighting, step in when somebody can’t. You realize it’s a bigger picture. You have to be able to do everything. I’ve watched Dario change lighting, stand on a ladder and fix things to make [a production] happen.”

Moore sees what they’re doing at CCD as “a unique educator’s challenge—to be holistic in how we’re training students here.” And what emerges from this holistic view is a center that embodies an expansive definition of contemporary dance as not just a particular dance style, but as an approach to the entire field.

For Reverend and Dr. Margo Blake-Tyler, a former student and now a teacher at CCD, “contemporary means being a well-rounded dancer who can do different techniques and understands what the current dance market is about, what the current and most popular dance styles are, and what it takes to break into the professional dance field.”

But of course, more specifically CCD offers technique classes labeled “contemporary.” The consensus among the CCD staff seems to be that it involves the best mix of dance styles needed to tell a particular story. Says James, “I believe that, from the 5-year-olds to the professionals, we tell a story with our movement. Our kids know the meaning behind [their movement]. We’re training dancers to become artists.”

Thompson mentions Katherine Dunham as an early pioneer of this idea of contemporary dance. As Thompson puts it, Dunham combined “several dance styles to create her own style, which was very contemporary and very American. What made her controversial was that some people didn’t see her style as one that was contemporary as much as just her take on ethnic and Caribbean dance styles. But she took her ballet training and researched dances from Africa, Haiti, and Latin American cultures and used it in her process. That process is in my opinion what makes the dance contemporary. It is ever evolving and always tells a story or shows a perspective.”

The perspective of CCD is one of true and vibrant diversity. Johnson says he and Moore pride themselves “on having created, I would say, one of the most diverse studio spaces here in central Florida. Part of that is because we ensure that our employees are diverse. Like attracts like, and we’re very aware of that. We love that you could be sitting in our lobby and see an Asian person, a white person, a black person, a Latino person—a perfect blend of all these different colors and shapes and sizes. It’s an amazing experience.”

Johnson says that CCD recruits resident artists who are “as diverse as the world is, to make sure that the audiences that we’re recruiting to the center are also diverse. There’s a very large consciousness around programming with diversity in mind. It goes beyond race. We have people here with physical limitations.”

This diversity encourages a broad range of experience among the students. Blake-Tyler, who has danced her entire life (she is in her 50s) but came to CCD to take class after a long absence from dancing, appreciates the climate that creates. “Nobody judges you by your ability, by what you look like, your size, your height, your weight, your skin color,” she says. “And I really enjoy that because I felt like at my age I could take a dance class and nobody would laugh at me. I got nothing but encouragement.”

When she began teaching again, Blake-Tyler says, Johnson and Moore challenged her. “African was always easy for me to teach. But when they asked me to teach Dunham and jazz, I hadn’t done them in a while. [Teaching them] challenged me as a teacher, and it helped me to come back to myself as an artist.”

“That’s why our model here is successful,” says Moore. “Everyone who walks in that door feels us see them [as an individual].” The message sent, according to Moore, is: “Why are you here, let’s find out who you are, what you’re hoping to achieve here. And in your real life, use dance as a model for what you can do out in the real world and go achieve it, go do it.”

Financial aid and scholarship or work-exchange opportunities are there for those students who need them. “We’re very family oriented,” says James. “Dario is a big believer in the village raising the child. So we’ll carpool, pick the kids up if need be, [find] scholarship opportunities for the kids, like cleaning or being a teacher assistant, so they’re able to continue with their dance education.”

Despite the fact that CCD can offer a complete experience, from training to professional status, Johnson and Moore consciously try to avoid practices that feel insular or cliquish. “We’re not operating in studio circles that try to take ownership of and control their students,” says Johnson. “We encourage our students to study at other centers; we know that one place cannot give you everything you need as an artist. And if we’re going to expand dance here, or anywhere for that matter, we have to be inclusive and let students know that everything is possible beyond these walls.”

To that end, they help the pre-professional students apply to university dance programs and auditions. Over the past nine years, says Johnson, “94 percent of the more than 200 pre-professionals [trained at CCD] have gone on to enter a university dance program or professional dance company.”

Thompson is a perfect example of that success rate. “I really valued being given the room to grow, and being given the push to grow,” she says. “As a performer you have to always be learning. You can’t just become great and then stay at that level.” At times she felt constricted by the demands of the program, “but in actuality, that compression allowed me to go deeper into myself, figure out how I wanted to grow. And then do it.”

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