Recess | Local Arts

Durham choreographer Tony Johnson on struggle, identity and dance

Dance never came easily for Tony Johnson.

Let me rephrase. Tony Johnson has always had the talent. But, for the freelance dancer, teacher, choreographer and Duke institution, his circumstances were rarely conducive to his passion.

As a child he had to sneak around and pretend like he wasn't practicing dance because of the religiosity of the community he grew up in. As he got older and started taking continuing education dance courses at Duke, he had to deal with being the only black, queer man—and for a long time, the only man—in the program. Johnson worked at bookstores and drove buses and did odd jobs for decades, making sure his schedule was flexible so he could continue taking classes through the dance program. Of course, Tony never minded, because real jobs didn’t make him happy. Dancing, on the other hand, was his pride and joy.

For more than 20 years, dance was never Johnson’s occupation. In many ways, it’s still not. When I ask him if in his younger days he had a plan to make a living through dance, he furiously shakes his head, saying that he still doesn’t.

“When my work becomes survival for me, I don’t want to do it anymore. I feel like I’d become enslaved to society as an artist. So for me, [odd jobs] paid the rent and put food on the table.” he explains.

This mentality has meant a very simple life, and that's just the way Johnson likes it. For a few years in Washington D.C., he lived on $100 a month. He slept on the floor, like he “loves to do.” “Efficiency,” he calls it. He rarely owns things for long periods of time and has even left three apartments full of his belongings in search of a new abode.

“I would leave everything there, and only take a few things with me. I even left a car,” Johnson says to me, giggling. “The only things I wanted to be tied down was the spiritual part of my life as well as dance.”

When Johnson got involved with the Duke Dance program in 1984, the choreographer sent him home because the pieces in the show were only for women. He persisted, and after a few phone calls to the head of the department was able to begin taking classes. 

“I lived a lonely life,” he tells me, “I was always in search… So when I danced there, as the only African-American, only gay guy, it wasn’t about them, it was about my own search. About embracing his body that was supposedly condemned. And so I was willing to pay that price.”

One of his first choreography positions was as a choreographer-in-residence for the Duke Chapel in the late 90s, an opportunity he was hesitant to take.

“I was never really a church person,” he laughs, citing his sexuality as one of the reasons he had always been distant from religion. “I thought, I’m the biggest sinner out here by religious standards, and now you want me to dance in a chapel?” 

But he took the job, and through that, found a place. He was always searching for a spiritual meaning, struggling to find his place in a world that he believed had rejected the fundamental premise of his identity. 

“I tried to stay away from it,” he shrugs. “But it didn’t happen. I became a seeker, for this god I felt didn’t love me.”

The ideas of spiritual journeys and an identity that faced rejection and ostracism by the world we live in are common throughout our conversation. Johnson understands that he is one of the ultimate minorities, and expresses that emotion and struggle the only way he can, through the other consistent thread of our conversation: dance.

These days, Johnson has been working on projects about injustice. His most recent piece, "My Heart is Heavy," reflected his feelings about N.C.’s HB2 law. Other pieces have touched on subjects like slavery, gender relations and police brutality. Though he’s spent almost his last 40 years in Durham, he’s struggling to reconcile his home with the racism he sees in the state, and the lack of artistic community he feels in the city. 

A few years ago, he worked with Duke’s United In Praise group, and thought to himself, “What the hell do we have to praise on this campus? There’s so much racism and hate here.” So now his work and activism are steering him back in the direction of Washington D.C., and, well, he’s okay with that too.

Johnson has spent the better part of four decades weaving his way in and out of the Duke and Durham dance communities by way of the American Dance Festival. He’s choreographed over 300 works, been written about in many local papers, spoken at dance conferences across the country and held fellowships of prestige. Through dance he has found faith and self actualization, which have enabled him to teach dance in a homeless women’s shelter, volunteer at clinics to help people dying of AIDS and raise money for LGBTQ churches.

But at this stage in his life, Johnson is stepping back from performing. His life’s mission “is not to dance. It’s to teach, and pass dance on to others.”

As usual, he punctuates this statement of purpose with a self-deprecating crack, “I would not want to make people suffer with an old man like me on stage. I wouldn’t even want to watch that myself.”

As we part ways, I give Tony a little wave through the window of the coffee shop. He grins, waves back and pulls out his cell. A flip phone. Simple, but efficient.


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