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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

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. Johnsons 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 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 insure 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.

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 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.

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.

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!

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.

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Ryan's Curated Collection

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