Virginia Johnson: an accomplished life in dance recognized by Bessie Award


A highly respected, accomplished, and worthy woman of dance, Virginia Johnson, founding member and former artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, will receive the 2023 Bessie Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance, announced New York Dance and Performance Awards Executive Director Heather Robles, who labeled Johnson “a pioneering woman in the arts.”

Born in Washington, D.C., Johnson graduated from the Academy of the Washington School of Ballet and briefly attended New York University before joining DTH in 1969. Recognized as one of the great ballerinas of her generation, she was cast in classical, neoclassical, and contemporary works, but is perhaps best known for her performances in the ballets Giselle, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Fall River Legend. While still performing, Johnson attended Fordham University where she pursued a degree in communications. After retiring from performing, an Independent Artist grant from The Field led to an exploration of arts presentation. At the School of Visual Arts Johnson studied serigraphy, film-making, and television production before becoming the founding editor-in-chief of POINTE magazine from 2000 to 2009. It was in April 2009 that the company’s Founder and Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell appointed Johnson to succeed him in his directorial role.

Other of her numerous honors include a Young Achiever Award from the National Council of Women, Outstanding Young Woman of America Award, the Dance Magazine Award, a Pen and Brush Achievement Award, the Washington Performing Arts Society’s 2008–2009 Pola Nirenska Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2009 Martha Hill Fund Mid-Career Award, and honorary doctorates from Cornish College of the Arts, Swarthmore College, and Juilliard. She is an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and The Society, Inc.

In February 2016 Johnson was honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House for her contribution to the field of dance. In 2018 Johnson held the Brackett Visiting Artist Chair at the University of Oklahoma, she is also a recipient of the Mary Day Award from the Washington Ballet and the 2019 CORPS de Ballet International Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2020 she was presented with a medal of honor from the Actor’s Fund and in 2023 she was presented with Dance Films Association’s Dance in Focus Award. She serves on the advisory boards of The Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU and Dance/NYC, as well as on the Board of Works & Process. 

In July 2023 Johnson officially stepped down as artistic director and passed artistic leadership of DTH to Robert Garland, DTH’s resident choreographer.

Also being honored at the Bessie Award ceremony is Michele Byrd-McPhee, founder and executive director of Ladies of Hip-Hop, for her Outstanding Service to the Field of Dance.

photo credit: johnson and mitchell courtesy; Virginia Johnson portrait by Theik Smith

The New York Dance and Performance Awards, The Bessies | Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center | Preregistration for tickets, click here | August 4, 7:30pm

Leave a Reply