When I was in high school, my friends at The Chicago Academy for the Arts told me about Lisa Johnson-Willingham, an impressive former Ailey dancer who was teaching Horton at Joel Hall Dancers & Center on Thursday nights. I decided I ought to give her class a try.
The first time I went, I didn’t even pay for class. In fact, I don’t think I ever paid for her class. She was tough as nails, but she was always generous. The room was packed with people from all over the city. From modern dancers to professional ballet dancers to young students—everyone wanted to learn from her. Her classroom got so hot from sweaty bodies that the windows completely fogged up and contrasted the cold night outside.
In the beginning of our relationship, I was so nervous, intimidated and shy around Lisa. At the end of that first class she said, “OK, Boo! You need to point those feet and straighten those knees though.” She was always going to be honest with me. She is a very small woman who is full of knowledge and completely sure of herself. I remember she once told us, “I just had a baby and I’m doing this full-out—what’s going on with you guys?”
She was critical, but I never left feeling beaten down because she used humor to help us learn. She was a clown—a comedian who told us what we needed to improve while simultaneously making us laugh. She corrects everyone, including her assistants at the front of the room, so her students never felt that a correction was a bad thing, but something we all needed to grow. She is great at identifying every single person in the room and speaking to them in a way that they will understand. Whether it’s someone who doesn’t speak English, a child from the inner city or a bunhead of 12 years, she adapts her teaching to their needs.
At 17, I landed a musical that she was assistant-directing. She was 40 years old and six months pregnant and dancing full-out—we’re talking grands jetés! I was the youngest person in the cast, and she had my back. She would pull me off to the side and give me pointers whenever I needed help. Then, the summer after I graduated from high school, she hired me as a group leader for AileyCamp. She kind of forced me into it. She’d say, “OK, Solomon, I need you to sub for this class,” or “I need you to take over this class,” or “I need you to choreograph something for me.” She never asked if I was ready. She didn’t give me time to second-guess myself—she just trusted me with opportunities, and she’s the reason I teach today.
At each camp, she knew every child’s first and last name, and expected everyone else to as well. She often included children from foster care, and made sure everyone was treated equally, no matter their background. When I first started as a group leader, I was working with adolescents who were going through a lot. I told Lisa about one child in particular who I felt was a problem. She responded by saying, “No, they aren’t the problem, you are the problem.” I was so surprised—I thought the child needed to be reprimanded. Instead, she made the child her assistant for the rest of the camp. She got through to them by keeping them busy and giving them responsibility.
She used that same teaching tool with me and my career. After high school, I went to college at New World School of The Arts for two years, but had to drop out for financial reasons. I came home feeling like my life was completely off track. She found out what happened and called me up. She got me back in her class, and for the next six months, she nursed me back to health as her assistant. Then, when she thought I was ready, she told me it was time to get out of Chicago. She wanted me to audition for Ailey. After attending the summer program, dancing with Ailey II, and four years of dancing outside of the institution, I eventually landed a spot in the first company—an opportunity that never would have been possible without her pushing me.
Lisa always encouraged me to amplify the groundedness in my dancing. When I was a young student in her class, she told me not to change my dancing to match anyone else’s, even if the other men in the companies I aspired to were bunheads. She said, “One day, it will be something that will be celebrated.” She was right. I am not the man with crazy legs. I don’t do all the tricks. But I am passionate, and that is celebrated at Ailey. I have been given opportunities I never even dreamed I would get, and that is, in part, because of Lisa.
Today, Lisa and I both work at Ailey: I as a dancer and she as the director of Ailey Extension. She has had so many different titles within the organization: a dancer, a choreographer, the director of the arts and education summer intensives. She is able to do anything you throw in front of her. She is a mover, a shaker, a visionary. She is all the superlatives you can think of. She is Wonder Woman.