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About Ryan

Baltimore County

Ryan Kenneth Johnson is a virtuosic performer, choreographer and artistic director of SOLE Defined. He is a well-known national and international performer who has been called “purely amazing” by Septime Weber, Artistic Director of The Washington Ballet. At the tender age of fourteen, Johnson started his professional journey in the arts by performing with greats such as Gregory Hines and Marvin Hamlisch. Johnson’s achievements include being cited for his... more

Old School

OLD SCHOOL

As a percussive dancer, I’ve always been inspired by the musical likes of Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, and traditional music from Brazil, South Africa, Montreal and New Orleans. The relationship between music and dance is one that has history dating back to the inception of mankind, especially Jazz and Tap Dance.

For years, we have watched tap dancers and jazz musicians share the stage from the Nicolas Brothers and Cab Callow to Winton Marsalis and Jared Grimes. Tap dance and Jazz music has entertained, influenced and inspired our culture, art, film, and stage productions. At the tender age of 14 years old, I had the honor to perform next to classical composer Marvin Hamlisch and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It opened my eyes to the many possibilities of tap dance and music past Jazz. A fusion of classical music with the swing of tap dance inspired me to explore other types of music to dance to.

While touring with Step Afrika!, I was introduced to New Orleans Brass music, a boastful sound full of passion and emotion. I remember sitting in the French Quarter, watching brass bands play, people second lining and young kids tap dancing with bottle tops on their shoes. I knew then there was a space for a fusion to be explored with my mash up of percussive dance. Tap dance in New Orleans is taking the same historic journey as tap did when it was first created in the USA, it’s a part of their culture as a street performers. Tap dance was a social expression performed in nightclubs and on the streets before it ever had a place on stage or in film.

After years of listening to bands such as Rebirth Brass Band, and Hot 8 Brass Band along with many visits to NOLA I wanted to create a funky fresh fusion of art to add to my “Percussical”. New Orleans Brass music meets tap dance and multimedia to take the audience on an excited ride of music, movement, and African America history. Old school was born.

Kuku on Taps

KuKu on Taps (2017)

KuKu is traditionally a circle dance and drum rhythm with origins of West Africa, that is used to celebrate harvest and other celebratory events. Performed by women and two djembes, I wanted to recreate this powerful dance using percussive dancers. In KuKu on Taps, we mash up tap dance, stepping, body percussion and vocal percussion. The women represent mothers, wives and sisters, while the men represent the heartbeat of the drum. The djembe was inspired by women’s work with mortar and pestle hence the shape of the drum. The drum rhythms developed from clap pattern of the woman then translated onto the drum.

In 2015, I started building Kuku on Taps with the goal to translate the rhythms of the drum back to the human body, using percussive dance. In 2017, I’ve invested time and energy in the redeveloping KuKu on Taps. I presented the new adaptation as part of a full stage production at, Dance Place, in Washington, D.C. titled Zaz: The Big Easy. Following the show, I had the opportunity to sit with the audience, hear their feedback and go back to the drawing board with a new perspective.

With this new perspective, I wanted to continue to develop the show, which I classify as a “percusical”, a percussive dance musical. I teamed up with the brilliant choreographer Quynn Johnson. Johnson is a graduate of Howard University with credits such as Savion Glover’s Tap Company, Cirque Du Soleil’s One Drop, and the National Tour of Broadway’s After Midnight. In a joint effort, we took KuKu on Tap back into the studio and began to dissect each section. After carefully analyzing the footage and music, we decided it was equally important to incorporate West African movement to the translated rhythms. We also, added new subdivisions and polyrhythms to enhance the overall quality of the work.

Connecting the opening song Niakhaling Ba to the rest of the work became the next challenge. We commissioned music powerhouse Tamar Greene, a friend and world-renowned performing artist to help bring our idea to life. Tamar holds his M.M. from the Eastman School of Music in Vocal Performance and Literature; along with a B.A in music with a focus in Piano Performance. When I approached Tamar, we had an idea for the song however didn’t know how to bring it to life, but Tamar did! We spent hours doing research, including interviews with natives, watching footage online and interviews with local African drummers and dancers to ensure we upheld the true traditions of the song while adding our contemporary approach.

The fusion of minds, art and talent created the new Kuku on Taps; which premiered at The Lincoln Center’s Clark Theater in November 2017.

  • Kuku on Taps at The Lincoln Center

    Ryan Johnson and Quynn Johnson fuse percussive dance with a mind blowing arrangement by Tamar Greene, bringing global rhythms to the stage using tap dance and body percussion.
  • Original Score.JPG

    I teamed up with vocal powerhouse Tamar Greene, a friend and world renowned performing artist. Tamar holds his M.M from the Eastman School of Music in Vocal Performance and Literature, he also holds a B.A in music with a focus in Piano Performance. When I approached Tamar, I knew I had an idea however I didn't know how to "chart it". Well Tamar did! We spent hours doing research, including interviews with people from the west coast of Africa to insure we upheld the true traditions of the song while adding our contemporary approach.
  • Kuku on Taps.jpg

    Kuku on Taps is performed by seven artist. Two primary vocalist, three tap dancers/vocalist and two steppers/vocalist. Photo by: Craig Foster
  • Kuku on Tap 1.jpg

    Three polyrhythms from Bahia, Brazil translated to the human body.

Somewhere Saints

Somewhere Saints

Zaz: The Big Easy is an original story inspired by the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Located in the 9th ward of New Orleans, LA horn players and dancers come to unwind. Imagine if you took the famed Cotton Club and placed it in New Orleans, well that’s the energy of Act I. It is the home of the hottest dancers, brass players, and a place where great relationships are born. When Act I open it is August 28, 2005, the day before Katrina is expected to hit land. The local community has gathered at Zaz because it has always been the gathering place to ride out any storm. During intermission, the storm has hit the golf coast and New Orleans is in the direct path of destruction. As Act II open, we see the destruction caused by the storm and witness the pain it has caused the people of New Orleans.

I decided to use two spiritual practices here. I grew up learning about libation, the ring shout and the power of faith while dealing with trauma. Libation is an offering in which water is poured in conjunction with the calling of an elder or someone who has transition to the afterlife. The ring shout is another transcendent religious ritual, practiced by African slaves. The worshipers move in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands. These two spiritual expressions set the tone for Somewhere Saints.

The devastation is tremendous, many lives were lost and our man character is faced with dealing with the stages of grief alone. In this solo, Dwayne has internalized the events he has witnessed in New Orleans. Using percussive dance, he expresses his pain, confusion but more importantly his resilience and the healing process. At the end of the solo, he collapses from exhaustion and the members of the community enter in a line representing the Jazz Funeral of New Orleans.

I used two famed songs to create an original arrangement with Tamar Greene. “Over the rainbow” from the 1938 classic The Wizard of Oz and New Orleans classic titled “For when the Saint Go Marching In”. The fusion of the two song was the perfect ingredient to transition after such a powerful solo. “For when the Saint” represented the National Guard, Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force and FEMA who were all deployed into New Orleans. “Over the rainbow” represented the same thing it did in The Wizard of Oz, finding a place without trouble and hope.

It is in this moment that Dwayne and the community find the strength to persevere. To celebrate this new-found strength, I partnered with Quynn Johnson to create a percussive sand dance. Somewhere Saints is inspired by dance legends, Howard “Sandman” Sims, the Condos Brothers and the people of Botswana. After watching footage of these dance greats this new creation started to take form. The sand dance originated amongst the Native American tribes of North Carolina. Like libation and the ring shout the sand dance pays tribute to those who’ve come before us. While researching the sand dance in North America, we were led to a similar sand movement from Botswana, South Africa. In Botswana, both males and females perform moments in sand with shells wrapped around their ankles. After studying the Botswana movements, we started exploring the different grades of sand to find the ideal sound for us. We incorporated stepping and South African Gumboot dance also to increase the musical experience.

The goal of the second act of the show is to illustrate the resiliency, pride and unity of the people of New Orleans during devastating life circumstances.

The Heartbeat

THE HEARTBEAT

The Heartbeat is the second track to my percussive dance album. The driving force behind all I am is love. I love to dance, create music and the gifts the universe has allowed me to borrow while on earth. It has become an outlet but more importantly a tool to bring positive change to communities around the globe. When I wrote The Heartbeat, it was my way of answering the question "where do you get all these rhythms from?” Its from my heart, it's a part of my spiritual makeup. It’s not something I know how to put into words, as it is truly my souls’ way of expression.

For me percussive dance is a safe place to explore, express and communicate emotions that words can’t justify. It has become my tool to address social injustice, bring light in a world of darkness and a way to heal from pains I’ve endured in my personal life.

After my dad’s passing this project was put on pause. However, the energy has been rejuvenated. I was given the opportunity to bring The Heartbeat to life past the recording and move it to screen. My original chorography was turned into a score used to create the recording. The recording was turned into the soundtrack for a commercial, slated to air in the next few months.

This taught me that my purpose is much larger than I could even imagine. The work I’m investing in is important and a vessel placing percussive dance in new arenas, and breaking the norms of society. Collectively we are exposing the larger population to this art form; which in turn brings positive change to the dance community. It’s my goal to shift the idea of dance from a community art to a professional one.

Raw Soundz

RAWSOUNDS

As an artist, I am always looking for ways to present my craft in new venues and arenas. I’ve notice that dancers get put into a category that is sometimes undervalued and only seen as a recreational profession. It is time to take a stand and explore new ways to express art by stepping outside of my comfort zone. Time to make a statement and show the world that dance and music go hand and hand. Both art forms enhance the other and need to be valued as such. This was my driving force to start this project.

As tap dancers, we were always taught that we are apart of the band and to be one with the music. I believe in my heart of heart that percussive dance is the crossover art between movement and music. We have no limitations. We are diverse and versatile artists.

Percussive dance is rhythm, it's movement, it’s math and more importantly it's my inner voice. I hear music in everything I do, from walking to cooking to driving my car. I challenged myself to turn my dance into an album and break the social norms.
I started creating chorography as songs, using different languages and rhythms I experienced over the years to create this album.

Pushing myself to learn, create and grow musically, this process took flight. My goal is to create seven tracks, one per continent, that represent global rhythms translated to the human body.

This is track 1 of 7 titled Raw Soundz, enjoy!

Step & Skate: A Tribute to Gene Kelly & Donald O'Connor

On September 2, 1955 It’s Always Fair Weather, staring one of the worlds most celebrated dancer Gene Kelly made its box-office premier. This musical satire scripted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green would single handily change the relationship between dance and cinema. According to online review “it was not a commercial success” yet it was full of dance scenes that have become historic.

Ted Riley played by Gene Kelly is dressed in a black suite, white shirt, black tie and a pair of roller skates. As Ted rolls down a New York City street, he begins to whistle and sing only as Gene Kelly could. With his charming personality, his roller-skating song turned into a fusion of tap dance with roller skating. This high-energy fusion of art would go down in history as one of Gene Kelly’s most memorable performances including the likes of “Singing in the Rain” in 1952 and the 1948 movie “The Pirate” where he danced side by side with the dynamic duo The Nicholas Brothers.

However, Mr. Kelly was not the first to tap dance on roller skate, two year prior to Gene Kelly’s performance in It’s Always Fair Weather, Donald O’Connor performed a tap dancing roller skating number next to his young costar Noreen Corcoran. Like his unforgettable balloon dance, Mr. O’Connor tap and skate rendition was fun, upbeat and included a stair combination. Both artists were innovative, creative and brilliant in their one right.

Inspired by Mr. Kelly and Mr. O’Connor, I wanted to create a fusion of body percussion, and stepping on roller skates. This project is still in the creative and explorative stages of its development. I started this new work about three years ago while performing with Cirque Du Soleil and performed a small snippet in Washington, D.C. at the Atlas Theater with my company SOLE Defined. I continue to explore the relationship between these art forms with the goal to recreate both Mr. Kelly’s and Mr. O’Connor’s wok with my own personal flair.

Human Drum

HUMAN DRUM

As a kid, I was always told to use my words, however I always felt misunderstood when I spoke. I wasn’t the strongest reader due to my dyslexia, and slowly became frustrated with reading out loud. I became very quiet and social awkward according to societies standards, until I was introduced to tap dance. Tap Dance became my voice, it is my way of communicating without verbally saying a word. Learning to express my emotions in a positive manner, it gave me an outlet to deal with my many frustrations. Being introduced to tap dance by Mary Slater, was a turning point in my life not only for me but for my mother as well. As a single mom and an only child, dance enhanced our bond. My mother and I now shared a passion for the performing arts and it help bridge gaps in our relationship.

Tap Dance lead me to “Stepping” which later lead me to “Body Percussion”. In the human drum, I fuse these percussive dance forms that I love along with nonverbal acting to hopefully bring joy to the audience. The human drum solo allows me to break the forth wall and turn the audience into my own percussive house band taking them on a rhythmic roller coaster. Breaking the forth wall, allows the audience to experience percussive dance in a non-tradition format that turns them from spectators to artist creating a free-flowing rhythmic conversation between us all.

The solo represents freedom, self-expression and my inner being. It has a format; however, the choreography is always different. It truly is a self-expression of my current emotions in that moment. For me the performing arts allow people to express themselves and allow audience to disconnect from their realities one performance at a time. It's important to me that my work continues to mature in a way that crosses boarders, ethnic backgrounds, race, sexuality and can bring joy to all who experience it.

The Unknown Path

In the fall of 2017 I was contacted by Maria R. Royals at Carver Center for the Arts and Technology. She expressed interest in having me set an original work on the Dance Prime for the school’s anniversary. I was ecstatic to return to my old high school share my talents and experience in the industry. A large part of my mission is reinvesting in young artist, create opportunities to explore new fusions of art and to be a real life example to aspiring artist.

When I arrived at Carver Center, I had no clue what this new work was going to be. I had never worked with these young artist, I wasn’t aware of their ability, yet I knew under the direction of Stephanie Powell and Maria Royals the bar would be set high. I wanted to create a piece that would celebrate their power, strength, and royalty. A piece that represented them as individuals walking their own path. I knew this new work would push their ability, yet it was equally important to showcase their talents and fuse art forms they were familiar with as well as some that were new. This would create the space for continuing education while introducing them to new art forms.

I stood in a room full of eager young dancers, who were looking at me waiting for direction. I asked “how many people know how to boil water?”. They looked at me in total confusion. They slowly started to raise their hand, with small laughter. “Great”, I replied. I told them that I wanted them to use movement to spell their names and the path of movement had to take the same course as a pot of boiling water. The look on their face was priceless. We did this exercise over and over, each time explore new movements and the journey to push our limits. This exercise gave me an opportunity to see their individual creativity, vocabulary and vulnerability to new experience.

It was time to create! We had ten hours broken up into five days to complete this new work. I pulled from the exercise, from their ability, social dances, my experience as an artist and the work started to take form. The process was amazing, the students were committed, passionate and honestly it was a good time. This piece includes, house dance, stepping, body percussion, hip hop, gumboot, modern, and a hint of Horton inspired movement.

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