Risk vs. Reward

Image: Anisa Johnson performs in Dance Visions 2024. (Photo: Rose Eichenbaum)

Third-year dance major Anisa Johnson says their love of the craft makes all the risks worth it

By Greg Hardesty

When they were 4 years old, Anisa Johnson started taking dance classes because their parents thought they lacked coordination.

Today, they are a 20-year-old dancing dynamo who recently enjoyed a featured role in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ Dance Visions 2024, the annual showcase of faculty-choreographed pieces.

What started out as something fun for a kid to do has evolved into a well-polished craft for the dance major, who says that taking risks comes with the territory.

“I take a lot of risks as a dancer, when you consider it,” says Johnson, who in Dance Visions performed a duet in “Coltrane’s Favorite Things,” a modern piece with jazz influences choreographed by dance luminary Lar Lubovitch.

“We all had a great time and got to experience a real community feeling onstage,” says Johnson, who also danced in “Visually Sound,” a hip-hop piece choreographed by Cyrian Reed, co-artistic director of Dance Visions.

“That one was really sick!” Johnson exclaims.

I’m not willing to give up for the sake of fitting into society’s mold of what is considered ideal ‘work’ or a ‘career.

Elaborating on risk-taking, the third-year dance major says: “There’s a risk involved in going to college to study dance because you’re dependent on your physical health. And having to find your own opportunities and create your own career path can be very daunting.

“But dance is something I love and am passionate about and something that’s fulfilling, so I’m willing to take the risk of going through a lot of hardship. It’s something I’m not willing to give up for the sake of fitting into society’s mold of what is considered ideal ‘work’ or a ‘career.’”

Young inspiration

Johnson grew up in Murrieta. They have an older sister who also took dance classes, encouraged by their educator parents.

Johnson’s father, Travis Johnson, is a seventh– and eighth–grade science teacher. Their mother, Alicia Acevedo Johnson, is a ninth-grade biology teacher.

“My grandmother danced when she was younger,” Johnson notes.

As a child, Johnson started with tap and ballet. By age nine, they started thinking about competing and undergoing more serious training.

By age 10, they were all in and added jazz, hip hop and contemporary dance to their repertoire at a dance studio. Johnson was already thinking about attending UCI after learning about its reputation in the arts.

One of their inspirations was Donald McKayle, a pioneering Black American modern dancer, choreographer, teacher and prolific artist and trailblazer in the dance community who spent more than 25 years on the UCI dance faculty and helped shape the department.

Image: Anisa Johnson performs in "Coltrane's Favorite Things" (2010) a work choreographed by UCI Distinguished Professor Lar Lubovitch presented as a part of Dance Visions 2024. Photo: Rose Eichenbaum.

Tapping Into Creativity

While at Vista Murrieta High School, Johnson mainly was involved in commercial dancing.

After graduating in 2021, they got accepted into the CTSA.

“Coming to UCI, I was focused on ballet, but then I got more into modern dance,” Johnson says. “I now pride myself on my versatility — I don’t focus on one style, and that’s not common for people seeking a career in dance.”

Tap and modern, however, have developed into Johnson’s sweet spots.

“I find a lot of freedom and creativity and expressions in those styles that feel very natural to me,” says Johnson, a triple major in dance performance, dance choreography and economics.

They appreciate that the CTSA provides the chance for them to enjoy a broad curriculum of classes inside and outside of the School of Arts.

“While I’m in college, I want to get as much out of these programs as I can,” Johnson says. “I have a broad range of interests and always wanted another major besides dance. I know when my body eventually breaks down, I won’t be able to rely on performing. And economics came naturally to me in high school, so it’s great I can study it here at UCI.”

‘Something Special’

Rob Reinhagen was Johnson’s mentor at a dance studio when they were attending Vista Murrieta High. He first worked with Johnson at the Norris Performing Arts Center and later at his own studio.

“Anisa takes risks that propel them to artistic levels that most dancers only dream of,” Reinhagen says. “They use the stage as a canvas where their body makes beautiful brush stokes creating masterpieces with vivid color and imagination.

It’s risk takers like Anisa that come along and reshape what we think of dance and elevate it in ways that we never knew possible.

“They not only captivate audiences but take them on a journey one step at a time.

“It’s risk takers like Anisa that come along and reshape what we think of dance and elevate it in ways that we never knew possible.”

Image: Anisa Johnson (far right) performs in "SOUL INTELLIGENCE - A Tribute To The Late Great Pharaoh Sanders" a work choreographed by Assistant Professor Cyrian Reed, as a part of Dance Visions 2023. Photo: Rose Eichenbaum.

Big on Community

McKayle, best known for creating socially conscious dance works in the 1950s and 1960s, died in 2018.

His legacy lives on. Johnson won the Donald McKayle Endowment for Dance for 2023-24.

Over the summers, Johnson has enjoyed participating in UCI’s UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program), which among other things provides grants to support UCI faculty-mentored undergraduate research projects and creative activities during the academic year and summer.

“I need to attend UROP programs before I can apply for grants — it’s costly, but I know it’s worth it because I’m investing in my career,” says Johnson, who currently plans to pursue dance career opportunities after they earn their undergraduate degree.

Longer term, they’re interested in choreography and perhaps returning to graduate school.

At UCI, Johnson is big on community. They have had a hand in starting and are involved in three clubs: Movement Exchange UCI, Sole Rhythms Tap Club and Jazz Co-lab.

“I get a lot of inspiration and fulfillment by interacting with humans,” they say. “Your experiences with other people are things that can’t be re-created, so I find a lot of value in that – especially as an artist. And a lot of our career path is based off the connections we make in college.”

Next Up

Johnson will be performing in Dance Escape April 18-20 at UCI in a piece choreographed by João Ducci. They also will be performing in Physical Graffiti May 2-4 in a piece choreographed by Brooke Manning. In addition, Johnson will be premiering a choreographic piece of their own at Physical Graffiti in which they are collaborating with Daniel Manoiu, a principal musician at UCI.

Johnson encourages everyone to tap into their inner dancer.

“A lot of people don’t understand how personal dance can be,” they say. “It’s just so much about yourself and your expression and movement. I think a lot of people shy away from dance because they don’t have previous experience, which really isn’t necessary to express yourself through movement.

“Dance doesn’t have to be of service to please anyone else. If it pleases your own soul, people will begin to admire your presence and your expression and the organic quality about your movement.”

To learn more about performances for the Department of Dance, visit dance.arts.uci.edu.
For more information or to purchase tickets to Dance Escape or Physical Graffiti, visit www.arts.uci.edu/tickets.

Please visit our secure direct giving page and make a gift to support CTSA today!

Make a Gift

CONNECT - Spring 2024

Jump to Story