Featured photo: A promotional photo for ‘The Hair Journey’ (photo by Katrena Wize Artography)

Seven years ago, in the midst of an organizational crisis, Princess H. Johnson created a vision board for herself and the future of her company, Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet. By that time in 2017, her nonprofit dance organization had been in existence for eight years, but it seemed like it wasn’t gaining traction.

“It was an uphill battle to get people to hear us, to understand what we are and what we’re trying to do for our company, and to find the financial support and the collective economy that we needed,” Johnson says.

So in 2017, she started to downsize. But not before she put her future goals to paper. She placed specific funders’ names on the vision board, along with organizations that she wanted to partner with. But the main goal she had? 

“I wanted to create a masterpiece,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know what that was going to be, but I wanted to create a masterpiece.”

Cut to just one month ago, and the vision became a reality.

On April 23, Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet opened their show, The Hair Journey for just one night at the UNCG Auditorium. They sold about $11,000 in tickets and proved to the greater Greensboro arts community that a Black-owned, Black-centered dance organization could reach audiences.

“The first run was freaking incredible,” Johnson says. 

Princess H. Johnson celebrates the one-night premiere of the Hair Journey on April 23. (photo by 43 North Creative Studio)

The story, which hits some of the same story beats as the ballet classic The Nutcracker, follows a young Black girl named Zuri and her changing relationship with her hair. Written by Johnson herself, the original performance is brought to life by a full cast of dancers (22 to be exact), a choreographer, a costume designer, an orchestra and a composer. This weekend, the show will run for an encore presentation at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts in Winston-Salem.

“All I had to do for this show was fundraise, market and choreograph,” Johnson says. 

But things haven’t always been this easy, Johnson explains. In fact, for the majority of its lifespan, Royal Expressions — which operates a dance school, a professional dance company and an outreach program — has been working on a shoestring budget of about $65,000 per year. That’s including pay for Johnson and other staff, rent and utilities. And there’s a reason for that.

After George Floyd, a change in funding

When Johnson first started her organization in 2009, she went after grants and funders like the ones that funded historically white arts institutions. But being a smaller, Black organization, none — with the exception of Lincoln Financial — took any notice. Despite that, Johnson kept making her asks. At one point, the organization even got to host dance legend Misty Copeland in 2014. But the power players that fund arts in the city didn’t take notice.

Princess H. Johnson is the founder and executive director of Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet. (courtesy photo)

So in 2017, Johnson decided to scale things down. She cut the professional dance company arm of the organization and reworked the outreach program to be one that brought in money rather than a volunteer, pro-bono entity. By the end of 2017, she had told her dancers that the next show to take place in February was to be their last.

Still, Johnson wanted one last chance to make things work. She decided to start a grassroots fundraiser, managing to raise money through individual contributions. That allowed her to bring back the professional dance company. But then the pandemic hit.

“We shut the organization down,” Johnson says. “And I told myself that if things did not turn around for Royal Expression, that I was going to shut the whole thing down.”

But because of the financial crisis, grant opportunities opened up for many organizations like Royal Expressions, including the kinds of grants that could be used to fund operations, not just specific projects.

And then, George Floyd was murdered.

All of a sudden, those same entities that had shunned her for the last decade started reaching out to ask if she would speak on this or that panel. She started talking about equity with the Arts Council of North Carolina and the local arts council in the city.

“All of a sudden, all of this money comes flooding in,” Johnson says.

According to her, before 2020, the most Royal Expressions got in grant funding in a single year was $3,000. In 2020, they got $75,000.

“We established our worth,” Johnson says. “The higher your budget is, the more they respect you.”

But with more recognition came additional stresses.

“I had white mentors take me to coffee and say, ‘You have to be careful; you have to watch what you say,’” Johnson recalls.

And that’s because she’s always been vocal about the inequities that exist when it comes to funding for the arts, especially between Black and white organizations. That didn’t stop her.

“At this point, I’m just trying to find the people who want to hear me and who want to fund us,” Johnson says.

Eventually, the recognition and new avenues of funding led Johnson to apply for a Spark the Arts grant that helped fund The Hair Journey. And her seven-year dream saw the light of the stage.

A ballet about Black life

Despite being a ballet lover, Johnson explains how she actually can’t stand most ballets.

Swan Lake is okay,” she says. “But for the most part they’re devastating, and why does everything have to be a love story?”

So when finally had the opportunity to bring her vision to life, Johnson says she wanted to tell a story that would resonate with viewers.

“I thought, What if I made a ballet that stems from Black culture?” she says.

A scene from ‘The Hair Journey’ (photo by 43 North Creative Studio)

The Hair Journey — which was directed by Morgan “Flowerchild” Jones and written by Johnson — tells the story of Zuri, a young girl who grapples with her relationship with her hair. She grows up like many young Black girls do, having her mother take care of her hair. But one day, Zuri asks her mother if she can get her hair straightened, and thus begins Zuri’s Nutcracker-esque journey into the Weave Kingdom, where she meets the Weave Queen and also the Queen of Locs and Fros.

One scene in particular, in which Zuri’s newly straightened hair gets ruined by humidity, is pulled directly from Johnson’s own life.

She recalls a time about a decade ago when she decided to straighten her hair for an event and the rain ended up blowing her hair out to a frizzy afro.

A scene from ‘The Hair Journey’ (photo by 43 North Creative Studio)

“I had this idea in my head that my hair had to be straight to be pretty,” Johnson says.

It’s an unfortunate idea that’s been passed on to many Black girls because of Eurocentric beauty standards, Johnson explains. 

And it happened to her, too.

As a child growing up in the ’90s, Johnson says that she got her first relaxer when she was 5 years old. In fact, she didn’t grow out her hair back to her natural curly state until she was an adult.

“I remember all through high school, I got relaxers,” Johnson says. “When I went to college, I wanted to go natural, but I didn’t feel empowered to do it.”

Johnson hopes that through the show, people can understand and grapple with this wider issue.

“It’s important that people understand a little bit more about Black culture,” she says. “It’s not a ‘We shall overcome’ type of story. It’s just a sneak peek into the lives of Black people… it’s a human experience.”

In addition to drawing from Black culture for the story, the production of the show also defies expectations. There’s hip-hop, jazz, African drumming and African dance, for example.

A scene from ‘The Hair Journey’ (photo by 43 North Creative Studio)

“I believe The Hair Journey was created so we could share it to the masses and encourage Black producers to create beyond their wildest dreams,” Johnson says.

She’s encouraging audience members to adorn their best hairstyles for the show. Because like Zuri, who learns that she doesn’t need to fit in a box to be beautiful, Johnson is through making herself small and being grateful for scraps.

“I’ve always had these grandiose ideas in my mind, and I’ve always had to make them smaller and smaller and smaller,” Johnson says. “But with this I wanted to bite off more than I could chew… I said, ‘I’m going to make a full on ballet, and they’re going to pay for every piece of this because we’re worth it.’”

Johnson says her goal is to sell about 340 tickets before Thursday. So far, they’ve sold about a third. Find tickets to the Hair Journey at the Milton Rhodes Center website here. Learn more about Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet here.

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