Making New Movement With Dancer and Choreographer Babatunji Johnson

October 27, 2022

Growing up in Hawaii, Babatunji Johnson started his dance training in an unconventional way: by watching YouTube. “I had seen You Got Served, and later David LaChapelle’s krump documentary, Rize, and I thought, If there’s any way I’m going to be cool, I gotta learn that. So I dove into YouTube tutorials,” Johnson recalls of the hip-hop emergence that hit Hawaii when he was 15. A year into his at-home training, Johnson began studying contemporary and ballet techniques after he and his friends were recruited by a local dance school during one of their street-corner performances. “I knew dance was my purpose, but it was seeing Alonzo King LINES Ballet perform while touring in Hawaii a few years later that started me on my trajectory of pursuing dance as a career,”­ explains Johnson, who would later move to San Francisco to study with the LINES Ballet training program. After multiple auditions, he landed a spot in the company in 2013, spending six years with LINES before stepping away briefly to focus on creating something new. “I’m combining everything that kind of lives in my body, and developing movement from there,” says Johnson, who has since rejoined LINES and continues to choreograph his own work and teach.

male dancer learning against wall
Johnson’s choreography blends his hip-hop background with contemporary and ballet techniques. Photo by Michael Winokur.

Making It Work:

“I probably wouldn’t have been as successful if it wasn’t for the fact that three other kids wanted to learn, too. My room was converted from a garage, and instead of the drop-down garage door, there were these two sliding glass doors that became mirrors when night fell. We would each be in our own little mirror watching YouTube videos and being like, ‘Don’t look at me, don’t look at me.’ “

Working With Alonzo King:

“Alonzo has what I call God frequency. If he’s telling you that you can do something, you believe it. That ability makes art boil up inside of you—it makes what doesn’t feel attainable that much closer to being obtained—and I really feel like that’s a superhuman power that he has. I don’t know if he was born with it or cultivated it, but it’s something that I haven’t met another person with.”

His Pre-Performance Routine:

“I love, love, love putting my headphones on, blasting music, and just dancing the way that I dance—usually outside of the choreography that I’m about to execute. I don’t know whether it’s anxiety that I have to shake off, but I feel like I need to be not in control for a moment and let my spirit fly.”

Finding His Own Creative Voice:

“I went to Home Depot and got a bunch of plywood, and I built a little floor in my apartment over the carpet with the plywood and some linoleum over that. After rehearsals, I would just kind of religiously come home and dance. There was something about moving in whatever way I move and mixing everything that started to charge my energy.”

Recognizing His Own Worth:

“To believe that you deserve is a muscle that has to be worked and trained. Doubt keeps us safe; it keeps us in boxes that, ideally, provide the least amount of pain. And to step outside of that box and to own it is spooky, but it’s ultimately the freer of all things.”