Dancing On Faith

Tony Johnson Uses His Art and His Faith to Transform the World

Tony Johnson

A small figure dressed in black emerges in a church hall, his body moves and suddenly prayers are sent soaring into invisible space as they are made visible as light fills the space. This is the sense one feels when watching Tony Johnson perform, an activist, mystic, and as some would describe a 'prophet' of our time. Through his art of movement, the ordinary and profane are transformed into the sacred.

Johnson's journey in faith was encountered in the dark tragedy of losing many friends to the disease of AIDS. In the aftermath of this tragedy, and what seemed to be inconsolable grief, the pain of loss grew to such proportions that it wreaked his body and soul. In the early morning hours of 3 AM in what seemed to be unbearable darkness, his body and soul called him to do (edit out comma) what he does best -to dance. Making his way in the pre-dawn hours to the Ark studio at Duke University, he danced until light broke through and released those emotions that threaten as Martin Luther says, "to undo us" and through dance and prayer made peace with the gentle surrender. He moved until every cell in his body echoed with the movement of life. In the months to follow, he did but dance and reflect on this experience.

Emerging sometime later, he began the Faith Journey Project as a means to share his faith journey through choreography and dance with proceeds going to support those with HIV and AIDS. "People with AIDS are living longer, and that is a wonderful thing..," says Johnson, "that's good news, except that people forget and they are not donating as much money for research."

"God is there at that wall and calls your name. How do you respond with your body?" He heard a call to minister to people afflicted with AIDS and giving service to the homeless. He later became the choreographer for Duke Chapel at Duke University and started the Faith Journey Project.

After the September 11 tragedy, he was called in faith once again to move the fear and grief of the tragedy of September 11 through movement and prayer. "Liturgical dance is a relationship-an expression of that relationship with God," says Johnson. "People need a sense of belonging when we face crisis in our midst, where isolation and the disenfranchised are further shoved to the margins and our world lingers in potential annihilation. "The September 11 project uses art as a way to transform what emotions are wreaking our bodies and transform it to art," says project director Frances Eargle. "God uses ordinary people, just as they were sitting at their desks in the moment news flashes showed the twin towers falling or the mother waiting to hear news of her daughter or son who works in the Pentagon escaped after the crash, and asks them to become that person. In so doing, he makes ordinary people into dancers as they move the story of their lives."

Dancing most of his life, Johnson began a serious pursuit at the age of 16. His training spans a wide array of decades studying ballet, jazz, modern and African forms. He attended dance at Duke as well as attended the American Dance Festival for more than a decade. Currently he is working with dancers at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C.

One of his students at Duke recovering from breast cancer said about the Faith Journey project, "I lost my equilibrium, my confidence and my breast, I lost the fire it takes to dance. Tony let me know I've got a message to share that I don't have to be perfect."

Johnson sustains his creativity through his relationship to His Creator and the people he serves. By portraying homeless people in performances he witnesses to their isolation and and through his portrayal of them, lends meaning and worth to their lives. "The homeless community showed me who God is and touched my life and changed my perspective," he says "The connection with those who suffer makes life worthwhile for me."

Johnson's work is made possible through a Worship Renewal Grant Takoma Park Presbyterian received to enhance worship through sacred dance. They were awarded the grant by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan, with funds provided from Lilly Endowment Inc. "This is the perfect home for the September 11 Project. Our faith community is dedicated to activism on behalf of the homeless, building relationships in developing countries, fighting injustice and inclusion of all peoples," says the Rev. Laura Collins.

Tony Johnson will lead a workshop on Saturday, March 9 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Takoma Park Presybyterian Church. Workshop participants will have the opportunity to journey in this transformative work from fear and uncertainty to affirm peace and hope for the world. The September 11 Remembrance Service and dance project will be performed on Sunday, March 10, at 4 p.m. with a reception following. This service will be a collage of dance, music, and worship.

"When working with Tony in his workshops or witnessing his performance, one has the sense he moves like a river and where he stands there is a mountain." Tony Johnson, choreographer and liturgical dancer has moved mountains in his life through his faith and dance.