October 27, 2023
Volume 5 Issue 1
By: Carson Mason
For artistic director and dance educator Julie B. Johnson, dance is more than movement. It’s a practice of inquiry, empathy and empowerment.
While studying West African dance and working towards her Ph.D. at Temple University in 2012, Johnson became invested in the idea of shared living experiences and community.
These studies led her to create Moving Our Stories, an organization with a mission statement: “Moving Our Stories uses participatory dance and embodied memory mapping to amplify the histories, lived experiences, and bodily knowledge of Black women as a strategy towards collective liberation and restoration for all.”
“I felt called to lift up experiences, histories and embodied experiences of Black women because I feel like there are so many spaces in which they are overlooked,” Johnson says. “There is such a wealth of knowledge and discovery to be made there that can really benefit everyone.”
Born in Baltimore with her community of origin in Philadelphia, Johnson was brought to Atlanta in 2016 after receiving a call from dancer and choreographer T. Lang who founded the dance department at Spelman College.
Hailing from a family of educators, Johnson began teaching dance at age 21 and owns a deep passion for sharing knowledge. Now, she’s in her eighth year as a faculty member and third year as Spelman’s Dance Performance & Choreography Department Chair.
Spelman Dance Theatre is a creative and critical thinking laboratory that nurtures women of the African Diaspora and shepherds the next generation of Black dance makers, scholars and leaders. Its students take courses in dance theory with an emphasis on Black feminist choreographic practice, learning strategies for composition, and solo works and group works intersecting socio-cultural and historically based political activism, interdisciplinary, and technology.
The department has seen rapid growth from one dance major in 2016 to more than 60 dance majors in 2023. Beyond the number of students, the investment in the curriculum has reached unprecedented levels.
“The students have a fire lit under them,” Johnson says. “It’s really great to be in this position and watch all of the amazing work that my colleagues do to help these students develop their artistic voices and carve a path for themselves in this field.”
Director of the Spelman Dance Theatre Cicely A. Kelley credits Johnson’s deep passion for education in tandem with her care for the community at large.
“She chooses to utilize her research to increase engagement within her students at Spelman College, as to how they can utilize their personal somatic practice and voice as a site for political expression,” Kelley says. “Julie is truly an inspiration to all and a joy to work alongside.”
Johnson has helped Spelman collaborate with professional dance companies and education programs including Jacob’s Pillow. According to Johnson, a Spelman dance major is currently participating as the first college student in the Curriculum in Motion® Institute at Jacob’s Pillow, working alongside dance professionals and educators.
“It feels so fulfilling to see students carving their own paths, finding success and reaching the goals that they set out for themselves,” Johnson says. “I just feel grateful to be a part of their journey.”
Selected for several grants, fellowship programs and residencies including the Black Spatial Relics Residency Award for her work on Idle Crimes & Heavy Work, the 2020-23 Partners for Change Grant (a three-year and $75,000 grant through Alternate ROOTS and the Surdna Foundations), the 2022 Dance/USA Fellowship Award and $30,000 grant, Johnson has made a lasting impression on the Atlanta dance community in her eight years as a resident.
“I love the way that dance makers in Atlanta experiment,” Johnson says. “There are dance communities with deep histories and lineages that are honored and uplifted here, and there are dance communities that are navigating that newness, creating and trying out different things every day. It’s so great to be here and to be a part of that.”
Carson Mason is an Atlanta-based dancer who grew up dancing competitively in Greensboro, NC before studying contemporary dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Carson has lived in Atlanta for three years and works full-time as a brand social media manager. She is also a substitute dance instructor at Peachtree Dance in Buckhead. A lover of writing and communications, Carson has bylines in several editorial publications including MLB.com, NBA.com, The State Newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, The Lansing State Journal, The Macon Telegraph and more. Carson is thrilled to be more involved in supporting dance in Atlanta as a volunteer on the DanceATL writing committee.
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