By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Just as important as the plies and arabesques she lovingly taught them, was instilling in Black children the pride of knowing that they were just as capable of executing the moves as anyone else.
Prima ballerina and local dance conservatory founder NaTalia Johnson died unexpectedly on May 7. She was 37 years old.
Ms. Johnson was the artistic director of the Sacramento-based Natalia Johnson Conservatory of Ballet (NJC). She was born in Lubbock, Texas on November 20, 1983 to Doris Jean Kelly-Johnson and Lenious Johnson, Sr., a business owner and one of the City’s first African American employees. She was the youngest of the couple’s four children.
“Ms. NaTalia,” as many of her students and their parents grew to call her, first took dance classes at the Guadalupe Parkway Neighborhood Center in her hometown and was discovered and encouraged to dance with the area’s premiere school, Ballet Lubbock.
“In class and on stage, you could feel how much she loved to dance,” the school’s artistic director Yvonne Racz Key shared online. “I am grateful she was able to come back to Ballet Lubbock to teach and perform. If you could see her perform Sugar Plum fairy in Ballet Lubbock’s Nutcracker, you witnessed her magic.”
Instructors knew Ms. Johnson was destined for bigger stages and cheered her on as she pursued them. At 17 years old, Ms. Johnson was offered a dance scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School of the Arts, but instead took the opportunity to begin her professional career with the famed Dance Theatre of Harlem.
During her illustrious career, she’d also dance with Urban Ballet Theater, Ballet Noir, Ballet Lubbock, Renaissance Ballet, and Collage Dance Collective. She also studied at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She shared her love of dance, teaching throughout the county, including at the Harlem School of the Arts in New York, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Urban Ballet Theater, Henry Street Settlement Abrons Arts Center, Debbie Allen Dance Academy and has taught and choreographed in the public school system in New York. She also taught master ballet classes throughout the country and in Europe.
She performed with notable entertainers including Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Lopez, Raven Symone, Todrick Hall, LeAnn Rimes, Tichina Arnold, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Eddie Money, Audra McDonald, and the Rev. Al Green.
Additionally she performed for two U.S. presidents at the White House and entertained royalty — the King of Pop Michael Jackson and Prince. Ms. Johnson starred in “Pearl,” Debbie Allen’s remake of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in Los Angeles and the network televised “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.”
Over the years, Ms. Johnson graced numerous billboards, magazine covers and spreads, modeling for the likes of Dance Magazine, The Ballerina Project, Capezio, and Dance Wear. She also appeared in commercials including ones by Payless Shoes, MCI, Benetton, Sesame Street, Dillard’s Department Store, and Kids Gap; most featured her signature smile.
While living and dancing in New York, Ms. Johnson visited Sacramento frequently, mentoring dance and gymnastics hopefuls who were participating in the National Girl’s Self-Esteem Program and its Little Miss Capital City Pageant (LMCC), run by her sister, Kandice Kelly.
Ms. Johnson helped future queen Zaniyah Baskerville secure coveted dance training on the East Coast.
“Natalia Johnson was my first official ballet teacher,” Ms. Baskerville shared. “She raised me up in the G-SEP Program once she saw my talent. When I won talent queen, she took me to Broadway in New York and helped me get into dance classes.”
Ms. Johnson, she says, was “stern and very precise with her technique” but tempered that with a happiness and the joy of seeing others bring her work to life on stage.
“Ms. Johnson was a great teacher, a great role model and a beautiful person inside and out. She will be missed and her technique will always live with me. ‘Suck up the pain, point your toes and stay fierce,’” said Ms. Baskerville, who graduates this week from Langston University, an HBCU in Oklahoma.
Ms. Johnson retired from professional dance and relocated to Sacramento. The Natalia Johnson Conservatory of Ballet (NJC) was started in 2013. The conservatory’s offerings were also about hard work, pride and building self-esteem. Classes were open to girls and boys, complete beginners, as small as 2 years old, and more advanced dancers as well. The NJC also offered scholarships for young people who had the heart for ballet, but not necessarily the funds. Participants also performed as part of local drill team and praise dance groups. Her “baby” however was “The Nutcracker In Oak Park,” which she choreographed based on one of her favorite ballets. The show drew sold out audiences to The Guild Theater for several years.
Although they went on to careers in bigger cities, Ms. Johnson and Ms. Kelly never forgot their Texas roots. The sisters travelled back to Lubbock to lead self-esteem workshops there as well.
At the time of her passing, Ms. Johnson was a part of the Roberts Family Development Center (RFDC) team, teaching first graders in its afterschool program at Leataata Floyd Elementary School. She previously taught at other sites as well, including Robla, Natomas Park and Bannon Creek elementary schools.
RFDC co-founder Derrell Roberts respected and admired Ms. Johnson, whom he lovingly referred to as “chief,” for how she went about the business of serving children, supporting families through her art and building up the community’s self esteem.
“Little did I know that she would leave us so soon and impact so many in such a short time,” Roberts said. “The children and families of Roberts Family Development Center will be forever blessed to have had her as a part of our extended family.”
Ms. Johnson was preceded in death by her beloved father Lenious Johnson Sr. She is survived by siblings Lenious Johnson Jr., Debbie Johnson and Candida Johnson, who goes by Kandice Kelly professionally, as well as her cherished nieces and nephews, Anastasia Knuckles, Dichali Williams, Maliah Wilson, Anthony Wilson Jr., and Malik Wilson.