Bernice Johnson (née Willis)

Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre

Bernice Johnson, photo via The Edge School of the Arts.

Bernice Willis was born in 1911 and trained at the Grace Giles Dancing School. As a member of the Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre, Willis was in the original 1940 cast of Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual. In addition to performing at the Apollo Theatre and the Cotton Club in the ’30s, Willis was also a part of the original Broadway cast of Swingin’ the Dream (1939).

Willis ran the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center in Queens, New York for almost 50 years. Alumni of the school include dancer and choreographer Camille A. Brown, Roger C. Jeffrey (companies of Lar Lubovitch, Twyla Tharp, Metropolitan Opera Ballet, White Oak Dance Project), and Michael Peters (Tony- and Emmy-winning choreographer).


Black Ritual (Obeah), American Ballet Theatre
Bernice Willis, Playbill
Roger C. Jeffrey, Interview En L’AirIlluminating the Invisible: An Interview with Dancer/Choreographer Camille A. Brown, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society
Michael Peters, Wikipedia

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