Interview with Shannon Drake


Shannon Drake is currently Co-Director of School Administration at American College Dance Festival (ADF) with extensive knowledge and experience in the dance and dance administration fields.

I was looking for a little insight to what awaits me after graduation and found that I had a several questions for Shannon...

Tell me what you would consider to be the most significant experiences in your life that have brought you to where you are today.

"The most important one was probably college. I went to Ohio State University and got a BFA from their dance program. Their program has a large breadth of opportunities that they give you with different facets of the field. So, not only performance or not only choreography but also technology, arts administration, education and they encouraged you to create your focus the last two years. So that helped get me opportunities that eventually led to what I am doing now. I had an internship in college at Ballet Mag Columbus in their education department and that was my first office-type experience in the field. It helped me realize that I like doing this type of thing. I had a research position with the faculty that had to do with archives and Ted Shawn, and that led to an internship with Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival where I was an archive intern for the summer after I graduated. And that was huge because it was even more connections, even more experience in the field, getting a sense of how festivals happen. Which ultimately helped me land at American Dance Festival. But not before spending a very important year in Charleston, I worked for the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs where I learned a lot of good hands on experience that helped me when I landed the gig at ADF. First as the Performances Coordinator and then this last summer I got a promotion to Co-Director of School Administration. So, I would say College and then the Jacob's Pillow internship were probably the biggest things for me that propelled me through this. It's really been about meeting people. I also think it's about luck and timing. Like, I landed the job in Charleston because I met that boss when he was visiting the Pillow and I just emailed him when I moved there and it had just so happened that someone had left the position."

As Co-Director of School Administration, what is your favorite part of your job?

"Well, it's a tough job right now, we're changing a lot of things and it's a really big job. But, I think what I enjoy most about it is that we have these conversations about the field we talk to faculty and we talk to students about what is happening and what they want to be happening and what do we think should be happening. So we have all these larger conversations that I think can help propel dance education forward. And that's exciting. This promotion kind of out of nowhere and I had no expectation of being in a position to actually maybe be a part of some sort of change that could positively affect the field. So, it's exciting to be a part of those conversations and get to go to schools and talk to people and we have our NYC Winter Intensive coming up and I'll be there for that and that's exciting."

What do you find the most challenging about your job?

"It's like with any new job, there's a big learning curve. I had maybe 6 or 7 months under my belt at the ADF before transitioning to a different department. But it's a whole different ball game. And what happened in this instance was there was a full staff change over in the school. So, there's another co-director with me who is brand new to the organization in general so we're both going through this very intense learning process of how you do things while also simultaneously changing all of those things. Day to day there is this whole mental exhaustion of having to think through every step of administrative processes and how to organize everything in order to make sense and is it, more importantly, going to be clear to people so that it will be as efficient as possible. Also, everything is working with people and communication is hard no matter what because everyone has their own quirks and learning styles so you're always constantly navigating those kinds of challenges."

What made you decide to be a part of a dance performing arts festival?

"Dance has been such a big part of my life for so long that I've known that I want to be involved and I've known that the way that I wanted to be involved was going to change. When I was in school I didn't really know what I was going to do when I left school with dance, but I knew that I was going to do something. I guess I just came to an understanding with myself that it wasn't going to be performance because that's not really my favorite part, it wasn't necessarily going to be choreography because I think that there are other people who have more to say. So, I thought that I could be more effective with my organization skills, my knowledge of dance in the field and my passion for it and put that towards a dance organization. I got my feet wet in Charleston with the Office of Cultural Affairs producing all those different festivals like Piccolo Spoleto and MOJA."

What is your busiest time of year at the American Dance Festival?

"Surprisingly, it's all busy. Well, obviously the summer is hard on us because it's all happening but once the festival is going, in theory you've already put everything in motion so then it's just constant problem solving each day. But, all of the prep for it is incredible. In the spring we do a lot of traveling to different ACDA conferences, so February and March are actually really intense for us and that is right after doing the whole winter intensive stuff. Basically it's all spring and October thru December we're prepping for the summer and even before the summer ends we're having to prepare for the winter intensive in December. There's always something to work on and never not a busy time."

Where does your connection to dance stem from?

"I started in studio and did competitions from about fourth grade to maybe eighth or ninth grade and then I went to the Governor's School for the Arts in Virginia. So, I stopped going to the studio and stopped doing competitions and got really excellent classical ballet and traditional modern technique. While being in high school, I went to a summer dance intensive at Goucher College and then I went to Bates Dance Festival. Bates Dance Festival is basically why I went to Ohio State because a couple of my teachers at Bates were Ohio State people. Ohio State actually has a really great connection to Bates. That exposed me to improvisation and release techniques and all these different ideas of what dance can be beyond the traditional and classical things that I was learning in high school. So, those gave me a really solid base. When I went to OSU, I knew I wasn't going to be doing Graham, Hawkins or Horton but I also knew that I had those things solidly enough that I could take whatever OSU threw at me. I went to Bates again while I was at OSU and then I also did an intensive in Atlanta with a company (with a woman from Hubbard Street). And then I graduated and went on to Charleston and danced with Kristin Alexander, learned ballroom and martial arts before moving to Durham to work for ADF. Now, I take class at the ADF studios and do yoga."

"When I was in school I got really into contact improvisation and contact improvisation was founded from a lot of principles of aikido. So, I always wanted to try it, see what it was like and make those connections for myself."

What is some advice that you would give to somebody going into the professional world?

"The people part of it is huge, making sure that you are nice and are as competent as you can be. Knowing where you don't know things and being honest about those things is important. Own up to your mistakes. Everyone messes up and you're going to learn a lot from it when you do. Failure is valuable!"

"Stay open. Be sure to take care of yourself. Stay open to what can happen. Setting up the path to least resistance is great. Acknowledge your skills and present them in a way that makes sense. And get a lot of people to look at those things to make sure that you're doing that. Be realistic with yourself about those things."

"If you can leave work at work, do it! Your personal time is gonna become more and more valuable to you (if you have a day job). Having that acknowledgement of that work life balance is important to figure out. You're always having to figure it out, but it's important to always have in the back of your mind. Give yourself a break!"

"You're not going to feel ready for things, but you're just gonna have to do it anyway. Do your best and you will figure it out. Don't make choices based on fear."


"Jacob's Pillow Internship is really amazing. It's really intense, you're there for three full months, you live in the woods on campus. At the time, when I went, they hadn't renovated the intern cabins and given us laundry and all that stuff. Now it's even nicer than it was when I was there. You're there a full month before the festival even starts and then it's a full ten week long festival. Each internship has a different kind of rigor to it, all of them are hard because it goes pretty nonstop. The production people have late nights and early mornings and really physical labor. Administrators may start later but need to deal with people all day. I was in the archives, I had to set up a lot of chairs, some light archival stuff like entering records into a database for video archives and a lot of other things as well. I made a lot of really good friends and a lot of people from my intern class are all doing cool stuff in the field; a couple who now work at Jacob's Pillow full time, someone at Boston Ballet, a few at the Kennedy Center. It's a really great gateway to professional administration jobs, particularly along the east coast and in the dance world there's always an opportunity to meet people and learn a lot of things because the people who are working there are really good resources for how to do the thing in the field. They have lunch-time seminars with each staff person on special topics that they can help with like resumes, how to be a choreographer and arts administrator at the same time, grad schools and resources like that. I went the summer after graduating, so I was in that space where I didn't know at all what to do. By the end of it I was exhausted, but I miss it a lot after finishing and have managed to go back every year somehow. You should really look into the company management internship, where you are the person interfacing with the artists and all the logistics for their time there and interfacing with the production people to make sure that everything goes smoothly. So you get to meet all these people in the companies and work for the companies and get a really good sense of what it is to put on a show.

But, there are also the ADF internships that are only about half the time. So the festival now is only going to be five weeks as opposed to six, so you would only need to be there about six and a half weeks. There is the performances department which is what my old job. And those interns become the point people for the artists, they help with their itinerary, how they get where and how, what time they need to be places. Coordinating all the details in order to make the artist experience really positive. It's a really good prep much like the Pillow for management skills, being able to coordinate all of those things and you're in the performances realm and see how the director makes her choices around who comes and what happens when they're here. That's a really interesting process to be a part of and watch especially if you're interested in that artistic director/curator person of an organization."