November 5, 2013 by Nicole
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Craig Johnson. As the Executive Director of CCD, Craig is likely one of the first faces you’ll see when you walk through the doors. We talked at length about his background, life philosophies, what he wants for his students and our community, and what it means to be an Executive Director.
I was really struck by how brave and encouraging Craig is. His career trajectory may surprise you – it did me! – and it was such a great reminder that life’s journey is rarely linear….and nor should it be. I was inspired and I hope you will be too.
- Tell me about your background…I see you graduated from Rollins College. What did you study there?
Let me take you way back. I started out as a theater major at Montclair State University in New Jersey. I then transferred from there to NYU – the Tisch School. From there, I transferred to Rollins as a biology major. I’d always had an interest in science and how things work. And to be quite honest, I wasn’t a very good theater major. I was never a great actor. It just didn’t feel authentic to me. So I left the program on my own accord. I was doing fine academically, but I knew I wasn’t doing well artistically. I was very honest with myself about it. So, I graduated from Rollins with a biology degree, then I went into med school. I spent 3 years in med school. Now, some may say, “Craig, you don’t finish anything,” but sometimes people take a minute to figure out what they want to do. I’m a firm believer in taking the time to play and to experiment. I tell the kids, “you can be anything you want to be in this life” and I truly believe that. Call me multi-faceted, but life is too short to be just one thing.
- You’re also a co-founder of CCD. What inspired you to begin that endeavor? What was your background in dance?
When I was young, I was that kid asking my mom, “can I take acting classes? Can I take dance classes?” I was hungry for it. And [dance] was certainly part of my theater training, but I was never doing it as a serious endeavor. I was doing it for fun. Students will often ask when they can see me dance. You will not see me dance [laughing]. I enjoy watching them dance much more than they would enjoy watching me dance! I have a love and a passion for it, but I never took myself seriously as a dancer.
I was in my third year of medical school and actually working with patients. I realized that I loved hearing their personal stories and connecting with them…much more than I enjoyed practicing medicine. I realized that I didn’t want to be noble, I wanted to be happy. And I wanted to go back to the arts, realizing that it was a calling I had. Around this time, I reconnected with Dario [Moore, Artistic Director at CCD]. We’d actually attended Rollins together. At the time we reconnected, he was getting his Masters in Dance Education at American University and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. We had this idea that we might want to start a business together. It was in 2001 that this idea became a vision and a plan for what would become CCD.
- You’re the Executive Director at CCD. What does that mean? What is that job like?
I think for any burgeoning arts organization, the Executive Director is not what it says in the book. When you’re the leader of a growing arts organization, you have to become very good at multi-tasking, balancing programming, strategizing, fundraising, overseeing marketing plans, developing artistic plans and managing the day to day operations. My work is centered around keeping the wheels in motion while ensuring an exceptional arts experience for our students, audience members, supporters and community.
- I see you teach a class called Artist Enrichment…what is that class about?
Artist Enrichment is a class that gives students tools to become an intuitive thinker. They learn to explore and adopt their own creative process. We all have one. The point is to put each student in touch with that, to learn how to articulate it. So over the course of their lives, they have something to return to, a touchstone, that can be used to create their very best work and also to address occasional creative blocks.It’s actually a 4-year course. It takes time, effort, determination (and sometimes a few tears) to be able to break through and articulate a personal creative process.
The course also teaches skills in arts management, giving the student an inside look at the business of dance and arts. It’s not just learning choreography, putting on a costume, dancing in a show and then going home—there’s an entire world of business that lives behind the scenes and keeps the show running. It’s no longer enough to be talented. In order to succeed, artists have to be well-rounded and equipped with strong skills in multiple aspects of the arts, including the business of it all. This is a tricky industry and we have a responsibility to teach young artists how to navigate through and anticipate challenges that extend beyond the stage.
- What are your goals for CCD over the coming year and/or beyond?
Continued expansion. And I mean expansion in the broadest sense . Yes, I do mean more space, more studios, opening the doors to more students and more companies, producing more dance and more marketable artists. I want more of that – to watch the matriculation of our students, seeing them start as young students and grow into working professionals. But I also mean expansion where people are excited to be part [of what we’re doing], and the community is learning and growing through our programs. And it is happening. We have a newly-launched Parent’s Guild , a volunteer group of parents and mature students who help plan special events, fundraisers and more. We have 3 interns who assist with daily operations and we have a growing Board of Directors, who ensure the long term prosperity of the organization. We also have a terrific new Managing Editor of our Dance Orlando Blog—you have done amazing work for us, Nicole. And there’s plenty of room for more people to get involved. I love new ideas and new people who are eager to execute them—anyone interested in becoming part of the team is invited and encouraged to contact us!
- What inspires you?
Willingness to take big risks and a full commitment to doing so. That’s always inspiring. To everyone. And it’s relative. From someone deciding to move to Italy after being inspired by the countryside while on vacation, or someone starting ballet at age 60 because they never got that training when they were younger. Putting yourself out there like that is a risk. Big risks, big leaps of faith are often found in the smallest of choices—but the common denominator is a willingness to grow, change and evolve. The fear of change that is the single most limiting factor that keeps people from taking the kind of risks that will lead them to their own personal higher ground—moving through the fear is the only way to reach our full potential. And that’s a tenant of our Pre-Professional program. Showing them it’s safe to take risks. Teaching them how to take them over and over again. The sooner the student learns this, the better—because they’ll out-compete others who are even slightly uncomfortable with risk taking. This skill reveals itself in dozens of settings from auditions to relationships to the pursuit of one’s dreams—the secret to success is simply being really good at moving through fear and being comfortable with taking a chance.
- What are your biggest hopes/dreams for CCD students?
This idea of a limitless life. We have the opportunity to expand far beyond what our perceptions can hold. I want that for myself and I want if for our students. And they could never dance another day in their lives after they leave here and I would be ok with that. What I care about is that they use their talent – whatever talents those are – to leave a legacy that’s built upon expansion, for themselves and the world community they live in. People don’t know the half of it – we started this business with $100 in our pockets. Talk about big risks. We got a loan to pay our first rent. We’re living examples that you can do anything you want in this life. And that’s what I want our students to take from here.
- What piece of advice would you most like to share with dance students?
Dream big. Take even bigger action. And don’t take yourself too seriously while doing it.
Is that different from what you would say to someone considering dance training?
No. Not really. But I would add they can use a dance class as a model for how to move through life—it will take patience, courage and determination to learn the skills, you have to warm up and prepare in order to succeed, and what you put into it is a strong indicator of the return. It’s no different from any other life lesson. I understand what it takes to start something new–imagine someone considering beginning dance, they’re sitting out there in their car in the parking lot, heart fluttering, debating whether to come through the studio door. Push through the fear and walk through the door. Then use that as an example for how to live your entire life.
- What do you think the biggest myths about dance/dance training are?
That you have to be a certain “something” to do it. That it’s only appropriate for a certain segment of the population. That it’s exclusive. If you think about where dance really came from…it was ritual. It was celebratory and communal. It came from the people. It’s like Alvin Ailey said: “I believe that dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.” At CCD, we stand by the philosophy that dance is for everybody—and the history of dance reveals how profoundly true this is.
- How do you see dance in our community? Where do you see room for growth?
It is expanding. We do need more organizations like CCD to serve as incubation centers, so that we as an arts community can send more [dance] out into the world. But you have to think, in the last 12 years, Central Florida started with 2 modern/contemporary dance companies. Now we have 13. We’re doing pretty good! Eleven of these companies were added to the community by way of CCD’s Residency Program, which is designed to support emerging dance companies and transform them into independent agencies. We are succeeding. Do we need more audiences? Yes, we do. But audience development in dance involves community education and that’s our responsibility. Our community is still learning that dance is not an exclusive, elusive art form and spreading that message is key.
Part of our response is helping to acculturate audiences. For example, we offer free learning programs that are open to the public, where provide education in dance history and interpretation, including the opportunity to dialogue directly with some of the area’s finest dance makers. The next one is centered on the life and legacy of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, and takes place at CCD on January 26, 2014 at 3pm. We’re trying to create a safe space to learn about dance and connect that to some of the performances our community may go see. This helps us achieve the long term goal of cultivating a community that cares about, seeks out and actively supports the dance arts.
Thank you so much, Craig for sharing your story with me and with Dance Orlando.
I love hearing how people came to their careers. What stuck out to you? Tell us in the Comments section!