Sign up for our free newsletter
Virginia Johnson started dancing when she was 3 years old. Her mother took her to a well-known dance teacher in their Brookland neighborhood. This was in the early 1950s, but Therrell Smith still teaches in her studio at 13th Street and Rhode Island Avenue. “It sounds so antique now, but I think she looked at her dance school then as a finishing school,” Johnson recalls. “We were learning the kind of grace and poise essential for young ladies.” But Johnson would take her ballet training much further. At 19, she became a professional dancer in the nation’s first black ballet company; almost 30 years later, she is still the reigning prima ballerina at Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), performing in ballets like Giselle, Othello, and Swan Lake. (DTH is currently performing at the Kennedy Center through May 12.)
In the 1960s, Johnson attended a now-defunct high-school program at the Washington School of Ballet. “It was a fantastic experience—there were just eight of us—and we had the best dance training anywhere.” But Johnson’s studies there weren’t restricted to dance; from ballet class to math class to character class, all courses were taught in the same building at Wisconsin Avenue and Porter Street.
By her senior year, Johnson was ready to become a dancer. “All of a sudden, people were telling me about jazz and modern dance. Until then, I had gotten tremendous support in studying ballet.” Johnson says that only on a subliminal level did she understand what was going on: Her teachers wanted to protect her from the fact that it was unlikely that any established ballet company was going to hire her, no matter how talented she was. Ballet, the bastion of Western classicism in dance, was implicitly considered a white pursuit. Balletomanes quietly questioned whether black bodies could be trained as virtuosic instruments of the stringent technique. And many blacks questioned why any self-respecting black would want to join an art form so rampant with bigotry.
“Until then, I saw myself as human,” Johnson says. “I didn’t think in terms of black and white. Even though D.C. is and was segregated in many ways, my parents just wanted to bring me up human. But in 1968, I started becoming racially aware. There were terrible riots in D.C. Suddenly there were things to think about besides whether my passé was turned out.”
Johnson got a scholarship to New York University that year, where she did study modern dance for the first time. “I had never been on the floor till I got to NYU,” Johnson laughs. She was in New York for about two months when she heard that Arthur Mitchell, a black man who had become a star dancer at the New York City Ballet, was teaching classes in Harlem. She started to live for those classes. She also started developing a political consciousness, joining demonstrations at NYU protesting the school’s investments in South Africa. By 1969, Johnson took a leave of absence from the university to join Mitchell’s fledgling company, a troupe that started with four dancers and grew to about 15 working in a church basement. “It seemed to be the answer to all my problems,” Johnson says. “It was ballet, it was black, and it was socially relevant.”
As the story goes, Arthur Mitchell was on his way to the airport the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. As soon as he heard of the tragedy, he decided the most important thing he could do was start a company and school in the heart of Harlem.
“The story’s true,” Mitchell says. “I decided right then that the best thing I could do was work with my own community. I asked for Balanchine’s help, and he said yes.”
“He had been working with some older, established dancers, but Arthur decided to start from scratch and work with young people—dancers who were young and fresh and devoid of the bitterness and disappointment of some of the older dancers,” Johnson says.
“Virginia started taking classes and I asked her to stay with me,” Mitchell recalls. “She has a wonderful radiance that pours out of her. She is extremely musical; she is an extremely hard worker. She also has that inner something that makes the magic. She is one of the finest dramatic dancers today.
“In younger dancers today, the technique is incredible,” Mitchell adds. “But that has become an end rather than a means. Nothing replaces experience—it makes you a more well-rounded artist,” he says. “Virginia is that kind of artist and she is totally committed to the organization….We’re like a family, and I’m the surrogate father.”
Things happened very fast for the company. In 1970, the group toured Bermuda and the West Indies. They performed at the Spoleto Festival, an experience that touched the company deeply. “We were there a month,” Johnson says. “The experience was incredible; it was a place where art was a part of life and nourishment was coming out of your pores.” Soon after, the company began frequent tours of Europe, where DTH was very well-received. But back home in the U.S., the established dance scene was less sure what to do with the company. “We got a lot of feedback, like we were trying to be white, we didn’t have the temperament to do ballet, or we didn’t have the bodies.” But DTH continued to grow and gather strength.
Critics at home seemed to have the hardest time when DTH performed the classics, especially Swan Lake, according to Johnson. “Swan Lake is one of those ideal ballets. You don’t have to be black for people to say you’re not classical enough. But you also end up wondering if that’s part of their problem.” However, Johnson’s Giselle, another ballet that embodies classicism, has become a DTH favorite. Johnson remembers premiering the first black Giselle in England.
Though she had practiced the variations from the ballet since she was 13, she was worried about how it would be received. “That ballet is so worshiped, you don’t have to be black to worry how people will respond to you,” Johnson says. But the premiere was a smashing success.
Johnson is currently dancing at the Kennedy Center in a new work called The Joplin Dances, choreographed by company member Robert Garland. Part of the piece is set in a black social club, and the music is that of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries. DTH is also performing the company premiere of Las Hermanas, choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, and George Balanchine’s Serenade. Serenade is a theatrical look at classical ballet itself: how the neophyte dancer turns into a master of the art.
Each generation of dancers at DTH has had its own mission, a unique signature. “When we started that first year,” Johnson recalls, “we were the dancers who were told to do modern dance. We were so inside-out about the opportunity to do ballet—we were so excited. We were all raw energy.” There was a certain roughness to the company then, Johnson says.
Of the company’s original four dancers from 1969, Johnson is the only one still dancing with DTH. She is well into her 40s now, but she has no intention of retiring. She does do master classes and some coaching, though, in preparation, perhaps, for the inevitable shift to teaching. And she watches DTH’s newest generation of dancers with wonder and some envy. “All these young dancers knew from the beginning that they have permission to do ballet,” she says. “They really own it. There is a freedom to their dancing that I look at with pride.” CP