By Walter Rutledge
Louis Johnson’s passing marks the end of an era in Black dance. Johnson was the last of the of his generation of 20th century American choreographers of African descent and International renowned. His contemporaries, Alvin Ailey, Talley Beatty, Geoffrey Holder, Donald McKayle, and Arthur Mitchell, all forged through the restrictive Jim Crow era of hatred and segregation; that unfortunately included the arts- and dance.
It is hard to believe that not so long ago the arts, which are now a bridge that spans culture divides; was at one time part of the deep culture chasm of racial segregation and restrictive stereotypes. This unfortunately plagued every aspect of African- American life including housing, education, employment, sports and the arts. Artists like Johnson (and many more recognized and unsung) used their talents as an undeniable force that broke through glass ceilings and knocked down walls of racial animus. They courageously danced, directed and choreographed from “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody” through “He Ain’t Heavy” to “Say It Loud”.
Louis Johnson, like many of his contemporaries, had a need to not only advance the artform, but to use choreography as a teachable moment. He was able to express and share his experiences and the experiences of his community through movement and theatre. Johnson also spent a great deal of his energy developing the next generation of dancers and dance makers.
If you have ever worked with Johnson you never forgot it! The experience was part classroom and part boot camp; best described as informative, invaluable, inspiring, and invigorating. It was also at times, for lack of a better word, an artistic “ass whooping”. Fondly looking back it was like slow walking on hot coals of genius. The experience was often peppered with phrases like “no son”, “hey fella that’s not right”, and “look, look! I’m not hurting my knee demonstrating this again”.
But my best memories of Louis were not in the dance studio. In the early 2000’s I worked for The Boys’ Choir of Harlem and would often meet Johnson for breakfast at M&G Diners, a little Soul food restaurant on the north corner of 125th Street and Convent Ave. George Faison and T (Tad Schnugg) had assisted Johnson to secure lodging at the senior care facility located in the former Sydenham hospital, which was next door to the Faison Firehouse and around the corner from M&G’s Diner.
Louis and I would sit at the counter as he shared stories about his rich and colorful career. Between anecdotes we scuffed down an ample uptown portion of grits, scrambled eggs with cheese, bacon and sausage, and his favorite- homemade biscuits dripping with butter and jelly. These morning culinary soulfests were always upbeat and jovial. And the loquacious choreographer was like a lovable eccentric uncle who told great stories filled with wit and humor; often tinged with a generous does of juicy ole school gossip. Throughout breakfast Louis would endorse the meal usually remarking “Now you know they make the best biscuits here”.
From his experiences with Robbins and Balanchine at the School of American Ballet, to working with Foose on the film Damn Yankee or easing on down the road with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross as choreographer of The Wiz motion picture; Louis shared a life well live. He was a master craftsmen and still a humble terpsichorean. In my heart of hearts, I know he is looking down from above the clouds smiling; probably eating the most “heavenly” biscuits with his friends Alvin, Talley, Geoffrey, Donnie and Arthur.
We at O&A NYC Magazine would like your help to honor the memory of Louis Johnson. We would like to share your experiences with this dance legend. If you have a special moment you would like to share please submit your written memories (approx. 500 words or less) to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will post Remembering Louis Johnson memories from you- his friends, colleagues and students daily through the month of April. We do not want to create an obituary or biography instead, a loving communal and social distancing eulogy/celebration- Remembering Louis Johnson. Please join us your memories will help Louis live on for the next generation, we know he would like this.
In Photo: 1) Louis Johnson 2) Louis Johnson with Cassandra Phifer in “Forces of Rhythm” 3) M&G’s Diner