Formerly wayward Columbus youth gets dancing chance in New York

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 4, 2013 

He has a chance, a dancing chance.

Quintin Johnson and those who know him say he already has turned around his life. From bullied middle-schooler to wayward high-schooler, Johnson never felt he fit the molds that others chose for him.

Now, thanks to mentors who believe in him -- the way he chooses to be -- the 21-year-old Columbus dancer has a chance to match his vocation with his avocation.

Johnson is among 60 dance students ages 12-21 from around the globe selected out of more than 100 applicants to attend the Ailey Experience workshop Aug. 12-18 in New York. It's the last year he is eligible for the program with a reputation for leading to prestigious jobs in the dance world.

His dance teacher and agent, Barryne Richardson, put in perspective the invitation from the famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

"To be called to dance at the first international black dance company in the world is amazing," said Richardson, aka MzB. "They don't give those away lightly. It's a major opportunity."

He has a chance, a dancing chance.

Rough childhood

Johnson, the middle of nine children, was 4 years old when his mother died while giving birth to a younger sister in East Orange, N.J. Three years later, his father brought his family to Columbus to be closer to his stepmother's relatives.

He was retained in third grade at Johnson Elementary after moving here in the middle of the school year.

For wearing hand-me-downs instead of the latest fashions, for favoring singing and art and cooking over more typical boy stuff, he was called "sissy" and "lame" at school and in his St. Francis neighborhood off Manchester Expressway.

"I was so focused on trying to be cool," Johnson said, "trying to be like everybody else, that by the time I got to middle school, I started lashing out because that's not who I really was, what I really was about."

And he didn't get the support he needed at home.

"Growing up, you either go by the status quo or you put yourself on the outside," he said, "and I really didn't want the status quo."

His father, a nurse, isn't involved in his life now.

"We've tried to patch things up," he said, "but it's not the same."

In seventh grade at Richards Middle School, he tried to defend himself against a bully, and a teacher broke an ankle while breaking up the fight.

Johnson shook his head at the irony of the teacher who broke his ankle being one of his favorites.

"He actually believed in me," Johnson said. "From that point on, I knew things had to change."

As punishment for the fight, he was sent to the Rose Hill alternative school and ended up another year behind.

Then, in 2008, three of the children of one of his sisters, Agena Battle, were murdered by her boyfriend, Eddie Harrington, who also killed himself

"That was really hard," Johnson said. "I love my nieces and nephews. When my sister would bring them over, that was really my happy time."

When he was assigned to Jordan High as a ninth-grader, he instead went to another alternative school, the now-closed Academic Success Center. But he didn't find success there. A stab at getting his GED while staying with relatives in North Carolina also didn't work out.

So he returned to Columbus two years ago without direction.

"I was thinking about where I was going," he said. "I had to figure out something."

A spark of hope

That's when Johnson found a spark of hope in his dancing.

He always loved to dance. He practiced in a mirror, mimicking the moves he saw on the "America's Best Dance Crew" TV show.

"I wanted to do something like that," he said. "I had to do something like that."

Winning a competition in Birmingham boosted his confidence, as did earning enough money through jobs at Burger King and Krystal to buy his own house on Piedmont Drive, off Buena Vista Road.

But too many friends took too much advantage of him while he lived on his own. So a friend he now calls his older sister, Latricia Collier, took him in and mothered him like one of her four children.

Collier made sure Johnson understands he doesn't have to donate blood anymore just to get enough money to pay his bills. "You know you always can come and ask me," she said.

Johnson rented out his house while he stayed with Collier. But the tenants have left, so he's preparing to live on his own again.

"As long as he takes care of things like he's supposed to, I'm OK with it," Collier said. "I just need him to step up and quit letting people run over him."

Nothing illegal, just smoking cigarettes and hanging out instead of getting a job.

"If he came home and was ready to go to sleep, everyone was still there in his house and he wouldn't tell them to leave," Collier said. "He'd say that so-and-so needs somewhere to say."

She has heard Johnson come close to giving up the discipline he needs to dance. She has heard him come close to giving in to the negative influences in his life.

"I tell him things get in your way and try to stop you from doing what you want to do," she said, "but you may make it big one day."

Passion

Richardson, aka MzB, is another mentor for Johnson. After a friend suggested he start dancing at her studio a few months ago, Johnson leaped to new heights under her guidance.

"I saw his passion," said Richardson, a former Foxie 105-FM disc jockey. "I saw his ability to pick up choreography easily. I saw his willingness to learn."

Johnson's best dance genre is hip-hop. He also does jazz-funk, pop-lock and is working on contemporary.

"I want to learn it all," he said.

Richardson also wants him to learn how to present himself better. She fussed at him when he showed up for his Ledger-Enquirer photo shoot in a ski cap in the middle of July.

"He needs to look like a professional, not like he just fell out of bed," she hollered, making both of them laugh. "I have to call you out now so you will never forget it."

"I won't," Johnson said as he continued to laugh and stretch on the wooden floor of MzB's Studio in the Mission Square shopping center on University Avenue. "You're right."

Richardson, 29, has taught dance for 13 years. She has seen thousands of dancers. She estimates Johnson is a "78 out of 100 now, but I think his growth potential is Las Vegas-style. I think he can make a career out of dancing and choreography."

As he found himself through dancing, Johnson also found the joy of helping others. He taught at the Columbus School of Music and Dance summer camp and now teaches in Richardson's nonprofit dance group, Total Blackout, which goes to daycare centers to share the performing art's magic with disadvantaged children who couldn't afford dance lessons.

"A lot of times, the little boys, when they see Quintin dance, they say, 'OK, it's cool. We can dance too. It's not a girl thing," Richardson said..

"I was actually in that position before, where I really wanted to take dance lessons but didn't have the money," Johnson said. "So to be able to offer my time and show them that somebody can be there for you, it's a good feeling."

No wonder he can't stop smiling when thinking about his chance, his dancing chance, in New York.

"To be able to go out there and show my best, even if Alvin Ailey decides they don't want me, somebody else might see me and say, 'You know what? They don't want you, but I do.'

"It's going to work out. There's no other option. … I know who I am now, and I know what I want."

HOW TO HELP

The estimated cost for Quintin Johnson to attend the Ailey Experience dance workshop Aug. 12-18 in New York is $2,200. To make a donation to help him with that expense, write to his godmother, Annette Ernest, at 6053 Harvest Drive, Columbus, GA 31907. Call her for more information at 706-569-5567.

ANOTHER CHANCE

Quintin Johnson has another opportunity to be a dancing star. He is among the six members of the MzB's Studio dance crew, Total Blackout, which secured a slot on the Apollo Live Stage in New York, Sept. 15-19, and will be televised later on BET. The crew was the only dance group selected out of 300 acts during the audition at Center Stage in Atlanta last month. Other crew members are MzB (aka Barryne Richardson), Kelton Owens, Taylor Moss, Steffan Booker and Destiny McCoy.

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