Sarah Ford Johnson

Originally from Georgetown, Kentucky, Sarah Ford Thompson began her dance training at age eight at the Lexington Ballet under the direction of Karl Kaufman. She went on to earn her B.F.A. in dance from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. After relocating to Chicago, she danced for nine years as a Deeply Rooted Dance Theater company member and self-produced several dance concerts as Nucleus Dance Collective. She also served as associate artistic director and director of outreach at the Hyde Park School of Dance. For the past five years, she has served as the Dance Department head at the Chicago High School for the Arts. She is also a certified Kundalini yoga instructor, certified group fitness instructor and clinical exercise specialist

What first brought you to Deeply Rooted?

I auditioned for Deeply Rooted at their first audition, held at Truman College. I fell in love right away and knew that this was going to by my dance home.

How has your experience with Deeply Rooted affected your perspective on teaching? On choreography?

Training and performing as part of Deeply Rooted required that I develop a way to connect and commit deeply to each step in every dance, including class. When I work with dancers in the studio, I have high expectations for each student because they all have such excellence within them. Many times they need a creative process that requires that they tap into and work from that sense of commitment and fullness in each rehearsal. I learned that from dancing with Deeply Rooted. I see the Deeply Rooted influence in my choreography in the way that I use rhythm. Rhythm and accent is very important to me, and the Deeply Rooted repertoire inspired me in the way the choreographers use accent and energy.

What do you feel is the most important lesson you’ve learned from being part of Deeply Rooted? As a teacher, what is the most important thing you hope to impart to your students?

Most important lesson: Community is Key. That is a lesson that comes from everywhere in life, not just Deeply Rooted, but the work that [Co-founders] Gary Abbott and Kevin Iega Jeff do around creating a cohesive community is tangible onstage and very important work in our world today. As a teacher, the most important thing I hope to impart to my students is to listen, to love and keep showing up (to the step, for the team, for the community, for yourself).

What’s coming up for you that you’re excited about?

I’m moving to Cincinnati. I am excited and terrified. I don’t exactly know what I am going to do there. I am going to miss my dance family here in Chicago so much.  I hope that I am able to contribute positively to the human community there. I hope to continue growing the family.

Ray Mercer

Ray Mercer, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, is in his 16th year as a member of the Tony Award-winning cast of Disney’s The Lion King. He has simultaneously emerged as one of New York City’s most prolific choreographers. His dynamic, visually striking and thought-provoking choreography has won the Best Onstage Presentation award seven times at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS annual Gypsy of the Year competition, more than any other choreographer. Recipient of The Joffrey Ballet’s Choreographers of Color Award and a Capezio Ace Awards finalist, he has created work on Ailey II, Giordano Dance Chicago, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, New Jersey Ballet, Pensacola Ballet and Philadanco, among others, and for Dancers Responding to AIDS, a program of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. He started his dance training at age 17 at the University of New Orleans. He has performed with Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, as a guest artist with the Boston Ballet and on the national tour of The Lion King. He has worked with performers Garth Fagan, George Faison, Aretha Franklin, Kevin Iega Jeff, Louis Johnson, Rod Stewart and more. Currently the resident choreographer for the Ailey/Fordham Bachelor of Fine Arts program, he also directed and choreographed for the Smithsonian Oman Project, and his work is archived in the Smithsonian Museum. Last year, he choreographed Deep Love: A Ghostly Rock Opera at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

What first brought you to Deeply Rooted?

I was first introduced to Jubilation/Deeply Rooted at an International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference. I immediately feel in love with Iega’s choreographic voice. Soon after, I moved to Chicago and danced with Deeply Rooted for two seasons, from 2000 to 2002.

How did learning from and performing with Deeply Rooted affect you as a dancer and choreographer?

I think the biggest impact Deeply Rooted had/has on me as a dancer and choreographer was its humanistic approach to dance. As a choreographer, I have always found it important that my work comes from the spirit. I have always been attracted to experiences that touch the human spirit. I remember Iega said one day in rehearsal, “You dance who you are.” That has always stuck with me, and it is important that my work reflects that. 

You’ve worked with a number of important contemporary dance companies. Were there ways your time with Deeply Rooted prepared you for that work? 

I have been very fortunate and blessed to work with so many amazing dance companies around the world. I think Deeply Rooted has helped me with my choreographic voice. I learned during my time with Deeply Rooted that it is important as an artist to be authentic. This has helped with my approach to my choreographic work. I strived to approach my work from a genuine place. I think it makes me more tangible as an artist/choreographer. I have always felt that Deeply Rooted’s mission has been about authenticity and character and that it is spirit driven, and I think this is what makes the company as a whole accessible and beautiful to experience.

What has it been like to be part of The Lion King for such a long time? How has the production or your experience working on it evolved over that time?

The Lion King has truly been a huge blessing. To be part of one of the largest Broadway shows in history, and to work with people of color for 16 years and counting, has been beyond what I could ever imagine. It has taught me the value of work ethic and commitment. I think that my approach to the Broadway experience has changed throughout the years; I have learned to grow as an artist and individual in this company of beautiful people of color.

Anything else you’d like to share?

All these years as an artist and choreographer have taught me one very important thing: God can dream a much bigger dream for you than you could ever dream for yourself!! And that nothing good ever comes without hard work and dedication!

Nicole Clarke-Springer

Nicole Clarke-Springer, an alumna of DRDT’s apprentice program, is currently the company’s Dance Education Director. She received her B.S. in arts administration-dance from Butler University in Indianapolis, where she was awarded Butler Ballet’s Outstanding Performer. Shortly after graduating, she found her dance home within the Deeply Rooted Dance Theatre family, first as an apprentice and later as company member. With DRDT she has performed with Roberta Flack in Kevin Iega Jeff’s Flack and Jennifer Holiday in the world-renowned Penumbra Theatre’s Black Nativity. In 2007, she briefly left DRDT and served as adjunct professor at Western Kentucky University’s Dance Department and toured to Istanbul with Clifton Brown Dance Company. She returned to DRDT as Summer Intensive program director and began deepening her choreographic voice, creating and later setting works such as Nine, Dounia and Femme for the first and second companies. She also served as assistant choreographer to Kevin Iega Jeff for Congo Square Theatre’s Nativity for two years. She joined DRDT’s Artistic Team in 2013 and was named emerging choreographer for the program Generations. In 2015, she traveled with DRDT to the Jomba! Dance Festival hosted by Flatfoot Dance Company where she had the pleasure of setting her ballet Until Lambs Become Lions on the host company. She recently choreographed the opening number for the nationally syndicated Steve Harvey Show- Halloween Celebration.

What first brought you to Deeply Rooted?

I was in the very first summer intensive class! I “stumbled” upon Deeply Rooted. I was teaching dance at Chicago State University and saving money to relocate to New York with plans to study with the Ailey program. A friend had told me about the company and encouraged me to audition for Deeply Rooted’s Apprentice program. I decided to go, thinking it would be a free class if nothing else, and found myself worked into a frenzy! The energy in the space was electric, and the voice in my head was clear and loud and said, “You are never leaving here. This is home.” I then matriculated through the program as an Apprentice and later performed with the company.

How has your experience with Deeply Rooted affected your perspective on teaching? On choreography?

My experience with Deeply Rooted has not only influenced but affirms the work that I do as an instructor and choreographer. The Deeply process is more than steps; it is a process that teaches life skills and gives you the fortitude to move forward despite the challenges that come towards you. My mission through my teaching and choreography is to inspire, ignite and create individuals thru self-actualization.

What do you feel is the most important lesson you’ve learned from being part of Deeply Rooted? As a teacher, what is the most important thing you hope to impart to your students?

Self-actualization is the basis for the Deeply Rooted mission and is key to being an artist in our process. A huge part of discovering who you are as an artist is being open to process and realizing that this is a neverending journey. You must be honest with yourself and your approach to the work. Once that work is done, you then are held accountable to the work. I teach and choreograph from this perspective, especially during the Summer Intensive. The process is intense and at times extremely difficult. However, if you understand who you are, why you are here and your importance, the steps become a language for communication and are easier to learn.

What’s coming up for you that you’re excited about?

I am excited for the upcoming season with our main company. I also have a female choreography showcase called Femme Festival in the works and lots of teaching throughout the Chicagoland area. However, I’m most excited for a much-needed vacation!