Prima ballerina and dance conservatory founder NaTalia Johnson died unexpectedly on May 7. She was 37 years old and our world will never be the same.
Ms. Johnson was the artistic director of the Sacramento, CA-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. She was a ballet prodigy!
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.”
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 retired from professional dance and relocated to Sacramento, founding The Natalia Johnson Conservatory of Ballet (NJC) in 2013. Like her sister's non-profit, 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.
The parents of her students strive to continue Ms. Natalia's dream of bringing ballet to the underserved community, as this is the best way we can memorialize Ms. NaTalia. Just as the Pandemic hit, she lost her dance studio space when a larger nonprofit pushed her program out. She and her sister have been tirelessly working on obtaining a new studio space so she can welcome the children of her conservatory back into class. Our children are her children - she loved each one individually and collectively. Our children have lost their black fairy princess - she showed them what is possible, their dreams are in reach, and that hard work and dedication will get them there.
When the children would moan and groan over how hard a combination was, she would often announce, "No one said dance was easy!". They learned from her, that life just like dance, isn't easy. If you don't give up and work hard, you can achieve your goals and dreams. She would push them just enough but she also had the unique ability to be equally strict and fun....So fun and funny! Her studio was a safe place for our children, which was filled with laughter, fun, music and love. Ms. NaTalia was their mentor, their dance instructor, their advocate and their idol; we must not lose sight of her dream for all children to have the opportunity to study classical ballet.
The children in her program have faced many challenges, now losing their Ms. NaTalia, and us parents can not allow them to lose the NaTalia Johnson Conservatory. Her conservatory has been a beacon of light in their lives and in the community, and we must push forward to continue her legacy. Your donation will directly help us realize her dream of securing a new dance studio for our children and keeping her legacy alive. Ms. Natalia and her sister Ms. Kandice poured their heart and soul into NJC and the GSEP programs and those programs took a big hit due to the pandemic, so they have already been behind in fundraising efforts. Your donations will help provide classical dance training at an affordable price, along with scholarships to children who can't afford it.
It's hard to imagine continuing forward without Ms. NaTalia but it's impossible for us to do anything else. We will make sure she lives on through the children and her conservatory.