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.
Back then the Washington School of Ballet had an academic academy, which I attended. In March or April the year I was graduating, Mary Day said to me, “Well, you know, you’re probably not going to be a ballerina.” Can you imagine after giving me a scholarship and teaching me, keeping this knowledge from me? She knew it all the time. She said, “You’re a wonderful dancer and you should dance, but you’re probably not going to be a ballerina, because there aren’t any black ballerinas.”
She said it with care. She wanted me to understand that I’d been in an isolated environment there that was not going to be reproduced outside in the professional world. And I really do appreciate that. But for me, it was still ballet I wanted.
What is Dance Theatre of Harlem performing when it comes to Washington?
“Agon” is an iconic Balanchine work. It’s physically complicated, and now because the dancers have grown into such technicians, it’s a new beginning. And “Past-Carry-Forward,” by Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis, two former company members, is important because it addresses the African American experience. It is a really magnificent work that looks at the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration and considers how they manifest in the present day. It’s both historic and contemporary and really very moving.
We always have been about showing the breadth of ballet repertoire to an audience. We know there are people who are die-hard ballet fans, and we know there are people who have never been to a ballet performance. We need to do a mixture of works that show different faces of the art form.
Why do we still need a company like Dance Theatre of Harlem?
Dance Theatre of Harlem is not just about making a place for dancers of color to do ballet. It was what was needed in 1969 when it was founded [by Mitchell, who stepped down in 2004]. It was an opportunity for people like me. The first six or seven dancers who were in that room at the very beginning, all of us had been told “no.” The company was a way of saying, “Look, ballet is a magnificent art form, and it doesn’t belong to one person, one group of people, one culture.”
That is what Dance Theatre of Harlem is still about. It’s not specifically about making a place for dancers of color to perform. . . . It’s a way of saying across the board to people that ballet is not a closed world. Ballet is an art form that’s been imprisoned by a perception of what it was in the past. We need to look at ballet with new eyes. Dance Theatre of Harlem is a way to do that.
Traiger is a freelance writer.
Thursday through Oct. 19 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-785-9727. www.wpas.org.