The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon

Search Results

Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon


Louis Johnson

Director and choreographer Louis Johnson was born on March 19, 1930, in Statesville, North Carolina, but moved with his parents to Washington, D.C., at an early age. Although Johnson became quickly known in the Washington, D.C., school system for his outstanding artistic talents, he also developed a strong following for his gymnastic and dancing talents. In high school, he enrolled and trained at the Jones Haywood School of Dance, where he and such notable students as Chita Rivera blossomed under the tutelage of Doris Jones and Clair Haywood.

After being advised to move by his teachers to New York City, Johnson found himself at the famed New York City School of American Ballet, where he was mentored by Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. These associations led directly to a performance with the New York City Ballet Company and then on to Broadway shows such as Four Saints in Three Acts, House of Flowers (choreographed by George Balanchine), Damn Yankees (by Bob Fosse) and Hallelujah Baby. His public acclaim in these Broadway performances led to an offer to choreograph his ballet, Lament for the New York City Ballet Club. That success, in turn, led to him receiving an offer to choreograph the Broadway production Black Nativity by Langston Hughes. Johnson also choreographed Lost in the Stars, Treemonisha and Purlie, for which he received a Tony nomination.

Johnson has received the great acclaim for choreographing operas performed by the New York Metropolitan Opera. Those operas include La Giaconda, starring Martina La Rowa and Aida, which starred Leontyne Price. In movies, he choreographed Cotton Comes to Harlem and The Wiz, starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. In addition to his work in New York City, Johnson has mounted ballets for the Cincinnati Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet, Philadanco Dance Company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the Atlanta Ballet Company. In 1980, he started Henry Street Settlement’s Dance Department in New York City. He continued to work there until 2003. He also taught the first Black theatre course at Yale University and started Howard University’s Dance Department in Washington, D.C.

Johnson’s honors include: the Pioneer Award from the International Association of Blacks in Dance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; an honor from the California chapter of the NAACP for his work with the original Negro Ensemble Company; and a special night honoring him from Ashford and Simpson. His directorial credits include Porgy and Bess, Miss Truth, Jazzbo Brown, Time in the Wind and Ebony Game.

Johnson passed away on March 31, 2020.

Accession Number




Interview Date


Last Name


Maker Category

Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson

Garrison Elementary School

Armstrong Technical School

School of American Ballet

Dunham School of Dance and Theater

Search Occupation Category
First Name


Birth City, State, Country




Favorite Season



North Carolina

Favorite Vacation Destination

Harlem, New York

Favorite Quote

Holding on.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York



Favorite Food

Potatoes (White)

Death Date


Short Description

Ballet dancer, dance professor, and choreographer Louis Johnson (1930 - 2020) has choreographed for the stage in, "Damn Yankees," and, "Hallelujah Baby," and for screen in, "The Wiz," and, "Cotton Comes to Harlem." In 1980, he started Henry Street Settlement’s Dance Department in New York City. He also taught the first black theater course at Yale University, and started Howard University’s dance department in Washington, D.C.

Favorite Color


Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Slating of Louis Johnson interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Louis Johnson's favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Louis Johnson talks about his mother's background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Louis Johnson remembers his grandmother</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Louis Johnson discusses his elementary school years</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Louis Johnson describes his early involvement in dance</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Louis Johnson talks about his father's background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Louis Johnson recalls influential dance teachers</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Louis Johnson remembers classmates in dance school</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Louis Johnson remembers his first dance job</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Louis Johnson discusses an early appearance on Broadway</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Louis Johnson talks about the cast of 'House of Flowers'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Louis Johnson remembers his involvement in 'Damn Yankees'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Louis Johnson recalls close friends from his early days on Broadway</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Louis Johnson comments on young dancers of today</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Louis Johnson recalls experiences in the motion picture 'Damn Yankees'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Louis Johnson details his transition into choreography</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Louis Johnson talks about various choreography work</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Louis Johnson mentions students from Howard University' dance program</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Louis Johnson remembers choreographing 'Purlie'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Louis Johnson mentions various successes from his choreography career</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Louis Johnson describes his approach to new projects</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Louis Johnson talks about facing discrimination</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Louis Johnson discusses different types of entertainers he's worked with</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Louis Johnson explains applying his style to various projects</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Louis Johnson details various performers he's worked with over the years</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Louis Johnson remembers working in Atlanta and Harlem</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Louis Johnson explains his involvement with the Negro Ensemble Company</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Louis Johnson recalls his career with Henry Street Settlement</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Louis Johnson talks about projects of which he's most proud</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Louis Johnson talks about Howard University's dance department</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Louis Johnson describes the career of Debbie Allen</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Louis Johnson remembers choreographing 'Treemonisha' to Broadway</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Louis Johnson discusses various productions he's choreographed</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Louis Johnson details his involvement with 'The Wiz'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Louis Johnson recalls various awards he's received</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Louis Johnson talks about his directorial credits</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Louis Johnson talks about 'The Ebony Game'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Louis Johnson discusses his involvement in 'MissTruth'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Louis Johnson shares his thoughts on 'Jazzbo Brown'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Louis Johnson remembers the production 'Time and the Wind'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Louis Johnson further discusses 'Miss Truth'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Louis Johnson tells of giving exposure to lesser-known performers</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Louis Johnson comments on various performers he's worked with</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Louis Johnson talks about dealing with racism during his early years</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Louis Johnson reflects on his career</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Louis Johnson tells of the importance of black history</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Louis Johnson considers his legacy</a>







Louis Johnson describes his early involvement in dance
Louis Johnson details his transition into choreography
You started developing your movement abilities in elementary school. Tell us about being in the second and third--well, as much you remember--?$$Well, I used to tap dance.$$--and the acrobatics?$$I tap danced around with my acrobatics, and there was a gentleman named Derwood Brent (ph.) and Melvin Hope (ph.) that tap danced. And Derwood Brent was in charge of the New Faces Guild [NOT FOUND]. There was a thing in Washington [D.C.] called The New Faces Guild that Ralph Matthews started. He gave a show like once a year at the Lincoln Theatre, which was the only theater that black people could go to. And he would give a production every year, a fantastic production, tap dancing, comedians and beautiful show girls and all that kind of thing. So I--and Melvin Hope was another young man and Miles Conte (ph.), and they would tap dance in the shows. I was too young to, but they would let me tap with them around on the street. So I would tap on the street with them and some time I got older enough to be in some of those shows. And that's how I began to dance around. And I always did acrobatics with Nipsey Russell, Nipsey had a great tumbling team. You could never say enough about this man. You didn't know what he was doing then, but he was a great, great acrobat, like you see in the circus. And he taught the young kids to do that.$$Now, was he teaching you at that YMCA [Young Men's Christian Association]?$$At the YMCA and the streets. And that's how I got involved with dance. The YMCA was being renovated, so the YWCA [Young Women's Christian Assocation] let us use their place. And Jones and Haywood, the ladies who found in me as a dancer, who introduced me to dancing professionally was teaching there. And they saw us rehearsing at the YWCA, and they saw me stretching around and doing that stuff. And they were very impressed, so they offered me a scholarship in formal dancing at the Y, you know, and I, I said, I'd love to. And that's how it all started with me dancing.$$Now, tell us about the dance team that began teaching you? Just give us some more details and some--?$$Doris [W.] Jones and Claire [Helen] Haywood?$$Yes.$$They were two wonderful ladies that taught ballet. And they thought I would be able to do that well, seeing me stretch and carry on. So they invited me to take some classes at their school and gave me a scholarship and cleaning up their house like once a week. And I'd come and take dance classes there, and I did. And it introduced me to ballet and formal dancing properly. And I fell in love with it, but I kept my tumbling going on, and that's how I got involved with dance; came to New York [New York]. They sent me to New York City to the School of American Ballet. That's George Balanchine's school at the time; the finest training in ballet you could get anywhere in the world. And I went on, carried on.$Let's, let's go on to 'Hallelujah Baby' [1967], that followed your ascent there?$$'Hallelujah Baby' I wasn't dancing. No, I hadn't danced in a little while. And I was asked to come into that cause I--they knew who, they knew of my--the young man that choreographed it, Kevin Carlisle, I did the first 'Modern Jazz Quartet' thing, I had used him as a dancer because he even became a cari--choreographer. And he'd become a choreographer for the 'Garry Moore Show' [television program], and he had choreographed 'Damn Yankees', and he was replacing somebody. Well, he needed a standby, and one name leads to another. And a lot of people knew of my name, and they recommended me highly. And I became the standby in that.$$Okay.$$That means if somebody's out, you go in their place. And I stood in for Alan Weeks and another young man, I'm--Winston [DeWitt] Helmsley. They were called 'Tip and Tap', and they had a specialty number in there. And I was on all the time. I said, Oh, Lord, at least I'll get a chance to rest. Every time you look around, they say, Louis, get ready, get in your costume cause you're on tonight. So that--.$$So that way, you were quickly moving from being a dancer to being a choreographer? And your first ballet was 'Lament'?$$Yeah.$$And how did that come about?$$Well, that was at the YMCA, YM-YWHA [Young Men's-Young Women's Hebrew Association]. I had done a solo that was, that--called 'Harlequin', which I used my acrobatics and dancing in it. And it was outstanding. And I forget the man's name. How can I forget this man--he was a great producer of, of artists. And he recommended that I would be on a show that they did on Broadway. They used to do a show on Broadway where they used a lot of very fine talent to show them, to ex--to show their talent. And he insisted that they did solo 'Harlequin' of mine. And I forget this man's name. I'll think of it. He was a great, great, great impresario at that time. He--and that's how it started.$$Okay.$$My 'Lament' [1965], you're talking about 'Lament'?$$Right.$$Yeah.$$Right.$$Well, also during that, the man who--I said made me do 'Harlequin' also was named Mr. Koreff. I remember him. He was Nora Kaye's father. Nora Kaye was a great big ballerina at that time. And he gave this thing called 'New York City Ballet Club' every year. And he insisted I do a piece. So I, I did a piece called 'Lament' that I had heard the music of Bachiana Brasileira of Villa-Lobos. So I did that, and it was a big success at the Y. Then I began to do ballets. They, they, they liked it, the audiences did, and people did and talked--it was the talk--.