Even a pandemic can’t stop Joy Johnson’s beat

OWENSBORO, Ky. — Parents, siblings and family friends filed into the RiverPark Center last March for In Concert, Owensboro Dance Theatre’s annual spring production. Masked patrons with bouquets tucked under their arms navigated through the rows of Cannon Hall, half of which were draped with caution tape to encourage social distancing.

The first half of In Concert read like most dance recitals. The pre-professional company cycled through a set of senior solos—self-choreographed by graduating dancers Vivian Terry, Lauren Benningfield, Fletcher Barr, Chloe King, Maggy Quinn, Emma Silvert and Payton McCollam—bookended by a cute septet set to Hairspray’s “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Then came five more group pieces featuring the full company dancing ballet, tap and jazz. Included on the program: an original work, “Ascension,” by Joshua Blake Carter, and “Loose Canon,” which Jon Lehrer originally set on Giordano Dance Chicago in 2006 and Carter performed when he was still dancing with the company.

Indeed, Giordano’s ties to Owensboro run deep. Marcus Alford, another GDC alum who also taught master classes for the company in the early ’80s, is a frequent flyer with Owensboro Dance Theatre, returning this season as lead choreographer for In Concert’s second half, a one-act ballet called “Ariel’s Return” (and dancing the role of Triton, to boot). Wade through the sea of tiny dancing jellyfish and seashells on loan from ODT’s partner organization, Johnson’s Dance Studio, (plus cameos by professional dancers Will Vanmeter, David Reuille and Will Scott), and you’ll find that this is not just another dance program in flyover country.

Owensboro is nestled on the banks of the Ohio River, where the Midwest shakes hands with the South. A city of about 60,000, Owensboro is a two-hour drive from Louisville, across the river from Evansville, Ind. Joy Johnson settled here more than four decades ago when her husband, an Owensboro native, made the case for moving to a smaller city.

Johnson was born in Peoria, Ill. and raised in Omaha and Indianapolis. She attended Indiana University as a modern dance major, and ran a studio in Indianapolis for three years after college. She opened Johnson’s Dance Studio (JDS) in Owensboro almost immediately upon moving there. ODT, now in its 40th season, came five years later.

“I couldn’t have done that in a lot of places,” she said in an interview. “When I moved here, there was one dance studio.” It has since closed, but a former student opened another spot downtown. RiverPark Center welcomes touring shows as a kind of “Broadway in Owensboro” venue. Owensboro Symphony Orchestra has been around for 50 years and the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art has a strong presence in the community. Kentucky only had one university dance program at that time. “That was it,” said Johnson about the arts scene upon her arrival in the late ’70s. “I obviously have a passion for dance. I wanted this for the community,” she said. “If I’m going to be here, let’s do the best we can.”

Johnson will be the first to say that she doesn’t do any of this alone. In the early days, she and her first board of directors, comprised mainly of friends and family, petitioned the mayor for a traveling dance floor. Eventually, city and state arts councils and corporate sponsors would provide a base of support for these extraordinary young dancers. “It wasn’t luck,” Johnson said. “There were good people that were for this. Some of them were dancers’ parents, some had been artists in other realms.”

JDS’s alumni network, built over the last four decades, has strengthened the presence of dance in the community. ODT alums returned after college and professional careers to teach dance in the public schools or at the studio. Johnson says that the school system’s investment in the arts has created buy-in from the community and expanded the studio’s impact. Johnson’s Dance Studio provides scholarships for families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to invest in studio training, many of them introduced to dance for the first time in school.

A student in the Rising Stars adaptive dance program, JDS’s class series for dancers with cognitive disabilities. (Photo courtesy of Johnson’s Dance Studio)

A continual commitment has been to provide broad dance experiences for both JDS dancers and the community at large. In addition to the long-term kinship with Giordano Dance Chicago, ODT has a Dance Ambassadors program, which puts stars from companies such as Lexington Ballet and Kentucky Ballet Theatre in conversation with kids throughout the community. Busloads of K-12 kids are dropped off at RiverPark Center each winter for a trip to ODT’s annual Nutcracker. The Rising Stars program teaches adaptive dance to children with cognitive disabilities. And 10 years ago, instructor Jennie Boggess, another ODT alum, developed a dance program for people with Parkinson’s disease after two years of med school and certifying with Dance for PD through the Mark Morris Dance Group. All of JDS’s community engagement programs are free to the public.

Many of these programs, unfortunately, are currently on pause, but in nearly every other way, JDS and ODT have hardly missed a beat. When the pandemic forced JDS’s temporary closure, Johnson and her staff were up and running with virtual classes in a week. They continued this way for three months. The dance recital, typically in June at RiverPark Center, took place at the farmer’s market, a month later than usual, with parents spread out in lawn chairs. By that time, JDS had started to bring back a few live options, particularly with the older kids, and offered an in-person summer session at a reduced capacity until July 20, when Gov. Andy Beshear tightened restrictions on pubic gatherings.

The past year has worked in fits and starts. The fall session began as usual in September, 2020, including the postponed In Concert from the previous year, until a new stay-at-home order was put in place in mid-November, curtailing ODT’s Nutcracker plans. “We had 36 hours to totally revamp and get ahold of 325 families to tell them we’re back to virtual,” said Johnson.

Clara and her prince would live to dance another day, with a weekend of Nutcracker last February, followed by In Concert the next month. That’s where I met Johnson. We chatted in the lobby of RiverPark Center as Alford rehearsed bits of “Arial’s Return” behind me.

“This is the only one that’s been on schedule,” Johnson said. And as of this writing, the annual dance recital is also going on, as planned, on June 6. Giordano Dance Chicago will make its way to Owensboro for a June 19 performance that includes a dance battle of local crews as a fundraiser.

With strict mask policies, temperature checks, quarantine measures and physical distancing in place for over a year, JDS has not seen any transmission of COVID within the studio. “We just kept going,” said Johnson, ruminating on the past year, which was vastly different than the other 44 she’s been teaching. “I’ve learned you can roll with the punches and keep going. Sometimes change can be good.”

To learn more about Johnson’s Dance Studio and Owensboro Dance Theatre, visit johnsonsdancestudio.com or owensborodancetheatre.org, respectively.

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance dance critic, contributing to the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine. She is senior editor of See Chicago Dance. Lauren covers dance across the Midwest and writes regularly for Dance Magazine and Pointe with additional bylines in Milwaukee Magazine, St. Louis Magazine and Dance Teacher. Forthcoming publications include essays on ballet training in Chicago (University of Illinois Press) and Shirley Mordine (University of Akron Press). In 2020, Lauren published an opinion piece on the impact of COVID-19 on the arts in the South African journal Agenda. Lauren holds degrees in dance and kinesiology and has presented research on dance training practices at the National Dance Education Organization and the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. She has co-facilitated critical dance writing intensives in Chicago and Durban, South Africa, and participated in writing residencies at the National Center for Choreography, Bates Dance Festival and JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience. Lauren teaches dance history and kinesiology for dancers, with part-time appointments at Loyola University Chicago and Illinois Wesleyan University.