“I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am the soul that lives within.”
UNC Greensboro (UNCG) alumna Princess Johnson ‘07 vibes along to the lyrics of India Arie Simpson’s “I Am Not My Hair,” as she teaches a community dance class at the Greensboro Residence for Original Works (GROW).
“Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person,” asks the song.
The lyrics speak to the internal dialogue and struggle Johnson says happens in the Black community: “We have to make really serious choices and decisions about how we’re going to wear our hair and how it’s going to impact our life.”
The Hair Journey
During her residency at GROW, Johnson is workshopping her own ballet about Black hair titled “The Hair Journey.”
She hopes to focus less on the struggle and more on the joy. Her energy is evident during the dance class as she easily glides between dancing to the more soulful “I Am Not My Hair,” to the energetic “Whip My Hair” by Willow Smith.
“I whip my hair back and forth, I whip my hair back and forth,” Smith sings on the infectious track as Johnson smiles along.
“There are not a lot of ballet stories from the Black perspective,” says Johnson. “So I was thinking, what is our story? I wanted to create something that was a little bit more fun and inspirational and not just about the plight of Black people.”
Finding her voice
While Johnson has been choreographing dances since she was eight years old, it wasn’t until she studied dance at UNCG that she was able to perfect her technique.
“If I wouldn’t have done the dance major, I still would have just been this little girl who danced at church and in her high school dance team,” Johnson says. “But to be able to really dig deep and think philosophically about dance and my ideas and thoughts, and tie it all together, is something that UNCG gave me.”
Johnson is creating the choreography and production for “The Hair Journey” while UNCG College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) School of Music alumna Sharneisha Joyner ‘19 is composing the music.
The ballet is a coming of age story written by Johnson about Zuri, a young Black girl learning to love her hair just the way it is. Johnson describes the story as “whimsical and magical.”
“This topic is camouflaged through these characters and this girl and her journey. It’s about your self identity through your hair and the journey that you’re on,” Johnson says.
While her dance studies helped Johnson find her creative voice, her business studies at the Bryan School of Business and Economics helped her become an entrepreneur. Johnson also credits the Bryan School with helping her pay for her education with the Roscoe and Anne M. Allen Scholarship.
After interning with the North Carolina Arts Council and the Richmond Ballet, Johnson opened Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet in Greensboro in 2009.
“I knew dance companies existed, but I didn’t know how they existed,” Johnsons says. “But after I saw the Richmond Ballet, I wanted the whole thing: the big company, the dance studio, going out into the community doing outreach. I was an outreach kid, so I wanted to be able to give back.”
Part of Johnson’s residency at GROW includes outreach with community dance classes, hair braiding workshops, read-alouds and art creation workshops. The residency is a look into her creative process and Johnson says it has allowed her to slow down and experiment.
“I’m having fun. I’m thinking about hair, what my hair has meant to me, and listening to other people’s stories about their hair and their journey with their hair,” says Johnson. “I’m playing around with visual art and creating hair textures that will translate into creating these same textures through movement and our bodies.”
Johnson hopes to present “The Hair Journey” by April 2024.
“Without UNCG, I probably wouldn’t even have gotten this far,” says Johnson. “It all connects back to just deciding I want to do dance and I feel like this show is the epitome of all of the life lessons I’ve learned.”
And one important lesson Johnson is sharing, just as India Arie Simpson sings: “It’s not what’s on your head, it’s what’s underneath.”
FIND YOUR VOICE AND CREATE AT UNCG
Story by Avery Craine Powell, University Communications
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications
Videography by David Lee Row, University Communications