By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The Pennsylvania Ballet’s first African American male principal dancer will speak at a Philadelphia museum this evening– to share some of the details of his identities and methods for breaking barriers.
At 29-years-old, Jermel Johnson was born several “strikes” that would cause few to think he’d end up principal dancer in a ballet by George Balanchine. After all, the Baltimore native is Black. He’s proudly gay. And slim, with average height and muscles that can get a tad bulky, Johnson’s definitely NOT your typical ballet dancer.
“I’m so different, than so many,” he says, with a contagious laugh.
Known for his impressive jumps, Johnson started dancing seriously at age 13– which is several years after many professional dancers get started. But he says his high energy, natural talent and flexibility made ballet fit into his life.
“I could do the splits and I never knew what they were,” says Johnson, “I could curl my toes and just walk on them so there were things I was just naturally doing before I knew what ballet was.”
The son of military parents, Johnson says he developed a rigorous work ethic that made the structure of ballet appealing. He says his race and sexual orientation was never a thought. Happily partnered for nearly seven years, Johnson says that once he came out to his parents and they accepted him, he did not look back.
“There will always be someone who doesn’t understand you or why you are how you are,” says Johnson, “but there are going to be far more people who are inspired by you’re push through all of that….so I never really let that get to me too much.”
Over the past decade, Johnson’s work ethic and attention to detail have propelled him to the top within the Pennsylvania Ballet, helping him to blaze a trail thanks to doors opened by Meredith Rainey– one of the company’s first African American male soloists. And Johnson’s powerful performance in last year’s Midsummer Night’s Dream won him a nod in Pointe Magazine as one of the “Top 10 Favorite Performances of 2013.”
“I fell like if you have the ability, if you have the drive, if you want something and you work hard enough for it- it can be achieved,” he says.
Johnson and Rainey will speak tonight at 6pm the African American Museum of Philadelphia. More at http://www.aampmuseum.org/calendar.html