Virginia Johnson has had an enviable ballet career, starting at age 3. This hometown girl, who grew up in Brookland, was a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she danced many illustrious roles, from romantic classics such as “Giselle” to the mercurial works of George Balanchine. For much of her 28-year career with the company, Johnson raised the bar for generations of ballet dancers.
But the trip to the professional barre was not easy: She once was told by a beloved teacher that she was a wonderful ballerina but would not make it simply because there were no black ballerinas. That stunning statement did not derail her dreams, and Johnson found her way to the stage. She left Washington to take a scholarship at New York University, where she majored in dance. While in New York, she studied ballet with New York City Ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell, who founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 to show that African Americans could perform classical ballet as well as white dancers. At the company’s debut in 1971, Johnson was front and center.
Next week, Johnson, 63, returns to her home town as artistic director of the resuscitated Dance Theatre of Harlem, which is performing at Sidney Harman Hall.
We spoke to Johnson recently by phone from her office in Harlem about her early years as a ballet student, the work her company is bringing to Washington and why Dance Theatre of Harlem remains an integral part of the ballet world.
Tell me how you began dancing.
Virginia Johnson: I grew up in Northeast, over by Catholic University, in Brookland. It was a great place to grow up. We had a big ’ol backyard, and all the kids in the neighborhood played together.
My first ballet teacher was Therrell Smith, and she’s actually celebrating her 65th anniversary as a teacher in Washington in November. She’s an amazing woman who believes in the power of this art form and she loves it so much. She’s still teaching at 95. She’s a dynamo and generous of spirit.
Washington was a very segregated city in those days. When I was 13, I heard about a scholarship being offered by the Washington School of Ballet on WGMS [then the classical radio station]. I auditioned and [school founder and director] Mary Day gave me a scholarship. I was a student there until I was 18.
Were you the only African American at the school in the 1960s?
I think I was the only one. Although Mary Day brought in Louis Johnson to choreograph for the Washington Ballet. So she had her eye on African Americans. It was just a difficult time. It was a very segregated time.
[Washington] was a majority black city. So my formative time as a young person was segregated because it was majority black. I grew up in this very wonderful environment where everybody was the same. We didn’t really cross over very much. Moving over to the ballet school on Wisconsin Avenue was moving into a another world, but I was so totally besotted with the art form that I didn’t notice anything. I was in the place I was going.