Dance instructor Miryam Johnson, 25, connects dancing to her students' history and life

This is a spotlight in our emerging leaders series where we profile under-30 changemakers doing great work with youth.

Miryam Johnson has been dancing since she was young—very young. Her mother enrolled her in ballet classes at the age of five, back in her hometown of Akron, Ohio and she hasn't looked back since. 

Today, Johnson finds herself here in Detroit, a member of the city's dance community. While pursuing her own dance career and interests, Johnson is also a member of Harge Dance Stories, the dance company that drew her to the city. She recently finished an internship at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. And she's a teaching artist for Living Arts, teaching dance to students that range in ages from 3 to 17 years old, through both out-of- and in-school programs. 

Dancing has been the most consistent and important feature in Johnson's life. She can talk endlessly about its value, like the way it offers both freedom and structure, or how it can be a therapeutic stress-reliever. 

But the artform can be especially empowering to youth as a form of both community and self-expression, which is why she derives so much pleasure in her role as a teaching artist for Living Arts. 

"It's a space for creativity, for students to show expression, to learn their history, to connect it to their life," says Johnson. 

Ironically, it took Johnson sometime to fully appreciate dance. Though dutiful in her classes, she wasn't enamored with her ballet lessons, saying that it was difficult being the only African American in class. But by middle school, Johnson enrolled in an arts school and was exposed to dance styles she found more enjoyable, like jazz and tap. And then in high school, Johnson got to dance with more people who looked like she did, and that's when she truly began to embrace the artform.

She would end up at Eastern Michigan University, graduating with a degree in dance performance and African American studies. Those two subjects are what inform Johnson's work today, both in her dancing career and as a teaching artist. 

"The things that I wanted when I was younger, I now try and give to my students today," she says.

During her internship at the Charles H. Wright, Johnson was tasked with developing programming that would attract more young people to the museum. She convened discussions and asked the youth what they'd like to see. 

She was also invited to create her own night of performance. Not just her own small piece as part of someone else's larger event, but her own show.

Johnson choreographed and curated an event that consisted of five dancers and three poets. As a whole, the work explored a timeline of African American rebellions over the past five decades, starting with Detroit in 1967. The performances moved through time and place, joining Los Angeles in 1992 and Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

Identity, community, and culture. These are the things that inform her work. And they're hopefully what Johnson's students can draw strength from. 

"It's important for them to see people like me and create works relevant to our community," she says.

Model D asked Miryam Johnson about herself and her work in Detroit.

What drew you to this profession?

It's one of those things that I fell into, and loved by accident. 

My mom was a teacher, so I was exposed to her in the classroom and what she might say. Because of her teaching, I just want to give whatever information I have to students who need it.

A lot of dancers teach in studio to continue dancing and pass along information, but for me, teaching in studio became more about a representation to the young girls who might not necessarily see dancers that look like me. But we exist. And being able to bring in other people like that, to help cultivate that creativity that they already have, bringing those cultures together. 

How do issues like race and diversity affect or inform your work?

Here's an example. I was injured last week and wasn't able to teach dance technique class in the way that I normally do. So instead I introduced my little ballerinas to dancers of color. Like the first prima ballerina who was Mexican, or Misty Copeland. I just tried to show them clips of their dancing, and they became really inspired. We were just in awe of these really, really beautiful dancers, which in turn made them work hard in class when we did get back to technique. 

A lot of what's happening politically is directly affecting the lives of my students, and their frustrations will come up. So I allow the space for them to express that through the improvisations. Because I know that for them, things can be very frustrating. But it's not my place to have a political conversation with a seven year old, so I'm not going to do that or tell them how they should feel. I'm just going to give them the space and the tools to handle what's going on, through dance. 

A lot of my work ends up being inspired by my community and my experience as a black woman, and what that looks like. Sometimes that's just fun, sometimes it's just hair. But sometimes it's intersectionality and oppression. But there's a lot of this that is beautiful, too.

What is your hope for Detroit's young people?

That they had more opportunity, especially with arts programming. A lot of them won't have arts programs as we know them. For me, as a person that grew up in nothing but arts-related schools, always around visual artists and dancers and musicians, I want to see more opportunity like that for these young kids.

To me, it's always been such a therapy. I think that, with the struggles of regular life and all that's going on around you, you need a way to express that. Being able to write poetry or sing a song, and find opportunities that let you create. 

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photo by Nick Hagen
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MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.