(MIS)CONCEPTION: a conversation with Princess Johnson
When Princess Johnson smiles, her entire face radiates joy. From her hairline to her jawline. From ear to ear. I find it impossible not to smile back at her. Whether I see her photos on social media or if we’re talking face to face, there is a light in her that is infectious.
The other thing about Princess is that she loves to dance. This April she will celebrate a decade of running her own dance studio in Greensboro, Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet, which provides dance instruction to youth and adults.
I met Princess and her husband, Shane in the fall of 2010. I was pregnant with my son, Max, when I interviewed them for a feature in the News & Record. They were finalists in a competition sponsored by the newspaper. Their love story was among those published and readers voted for their favorite. The couple with the most votes received a free wedding.
Princess and Shane didn’t win the contest, but they won my heart. We became friends and have stayed connected ever since.
I always saw Princess as such a ray of light that it never occurred to me that she could be struggling with anything. But she and Shane have been trying to conceive since May 7, 2013. That she was able to pinpoint the exact date for me says a lot. Their inability to conceive has, at times, cast a dark shadow over their lives.
And after two unsuccessful years, they began seeking medical help. I never knew what my friend was going through. I didn’t know until February 3, 2018 when I sat in a darkened theatre at the Greensboro Coliseum to watch her production, (MIS)CONCEPTION. It was a dance performance presented by multiple women who shared their own stories of struggling to conceive, including those who had lost their babies through miscarriage. A very dear friend of mine had lost her own baby through miscarriage, so that especially moved me. Their stories were narrated as they danced.
I was blown away. I was blown away by the beauty of their performances. And I was blown away by how candid and honest they were about their feelings of not being able to conceive - frustration, anger and deep depression. And yet - at the end of each story, there was hope. They hadn’t lost hope.
The theme of our Spring 2019 issue is "flourish | hope." I asked Princess what those words mean to her at this stage of her journey. This is her response:
“One thing I learned through my battle with anxiety and depression is that hope is the gateway to flourishing. I feel I am so close to total healing. Hope has returned and I can see so much more in the horizon, whereas before depression left me hopeless. I wouldn't take steps forward. When you don't take steps forward, there's no way you will ever flourish. So while we are yet still waiting, after the show I did two things. I made an appointment with a new doctor and I made an appointment with a therapist. Both of them have given me hope and steps towards healing and you can only flourish when you are in a healthy place.”
Here’s the rest of my conversation with Princess:
TF: At what point did you start seeking help?
PJ: The first time was in 2015. Our first doctor kind of dropped the ball on us and that's when I became depressed. I was so ashamed, I didn't want to ask for help. It was hard enough the first time. I kept thinking, ‘Oh, we'll be fine,’ but then we weren't.
TF: What’s been the most frustrating part of the journey?
PJ: Pregnancy symptoms, yet still getting negative pregnancy test results. I have all the symptoms, except nausea.
TF: Tell me how the concept for (MIS)CONCEPTION evolved?
PJ: (MIS)CONCEPTION was my cry for help and my way to release all my anxiety, depression and anger. Infertility was starting to disrupt my life and my creative process and I kept coming back to the idea. It was scary and bold, but I couldn't think of anything else to create.
TF: How did it grow from a very personal challenge to becoming a public production that
became a forum for other women sharing their stories?And why is it important for women to share these stories?
PJ: When I started research for (MIS)CONCEPTION the statistic was 1 in 12 couples will deal with infertility. Once we went to the stage, it changed to 1 in 8. Recently, I learned it's now 1 in 6. Women are waiting longer to get married/ pregnant, yet we don't prepare women for this possible scenario in their lives. The more of us who speak out, the more women will become aware and be more proactive in learning about their reproductive health. We are raised to be afraid of pregnancy, when really we should be afraid of infertility.
I went in the studio one day and just started dancing. I began moving with no music and no words. Then I sat down in my office and recorded myself talking about what it felt like. I then put some music behind it. I showed the video to my husband and closest friends. One of the people I showed it to had a story of her own and I decided I wanted to capture her story too. She had a story of hope that I knew needed to be in the mix. It felt imbalanced and I wanted to tell another story of hope, but that showed other options.
TF: Why is it so difficult to talk about?
PJ: We grow up thinking it's easy to get pregnant. We are taught about contraceptives to avoid it. So when it's time to actually try, we think there is something wrong with us when it's not working. Those feelings of shame and guilt can lead to depression and even break up happy couples.
TF: How can others (who haven’t had trouble conceiving) have this conversation with you?
PJ: It's important for others to realize that they don't have all the answers and to learn to listen more and talk less. Each couple has a different story, just as every pregnancy is different, so just listen to the story and ask one thing: how can I support you through this? We may not have an answer for you, but to know you care that much means everything.
TF: People (who are unaffected) are afraid to talk frankly about these topics - what should they know/keep in mind?
PJ: Infertility attacks the body and the mind. We become very sensitive. It's funny - it's as if we are pregnant. The same way you should use caution with pregnant women, use caution with us. We are very sensitive about what we are going through. Be prepared for us to cry and instead of being uncomfortable, just give us a safe space to share.
TF: What are your plans for expanding the production and bringing it before more audiences?
PJ: We are in the process of looking for funders and presenters to tour (MIS)CONCEPTION in N.C. first...we hope to expand to other areas as well. We are currently exploring a collaborative project in Atlanta, GA with a filmmaker who has launched a drama series on YouTube for women dealing with infertility.
TF: How would you describe your own dance choreography and how it reflects your personal story?
PJ: I've always thrived at lyrical choreography, so this process was very familiar to me. I've been choreographing since I was 8 and I remember my mom coaching me. She said, "Now what kind of movement matches that word?" For awhile, lyrical was becoming less than in the dance world, but recently text and words have been making their way back in. My choreography literally seeks to take a word and put it into my body so that without a doubt, you know exactly what that movement represents. Some words are easy to represent, but others can be abstract or even daring. I want the movement to be so connected with what is said that you can literally see the words dancing on stage. The movement must carry the weight of the words, no matter how intense, embarrassing, difficult, or uncomfortable it becomes.
TF: From a creative standpoint - how did you bring (MIS)CONCEPTION to life on stage through dance?
PJ: The first thing we do is capture the women's stories through interviews. We then workshop the interviews by creating a list of power words in the interview. From there, we come up with movements/phrases that represent the words. Finally, we take our time going through the interview to connect the movements in variations.
TF: Did you seek ideas from other dancers, instructors?
PJ: The dancers help make connections to the phrases and choose transitions between phrases that make sense for them.
TF: Was there another dancer, choreographer who inspired you - maybe someone who had produced a similar work?
PJ: I drew a lot of inspiration from Martha Graham. Her technique is drawn from womanhood. We also pulled from movement that is often seen in our repertoire from Willie Hinton, myself, and Amma Waddell.
TF: Will future productions be the same as the first one, or different/including new stories?
PJ: I don't believe any two productions will be alike. We hope to tell stories of women who are residents of the areas we visit. However, each production will follow the same set up of three stories and two interviews. I hope to continue to evolve my story and maybe one day be a story of hope and one to-be-continued story...
Our featured artist for our theme, "flourish | hope," Princess Johnson, is a dancer, choreographer, entrepreneur, and motivator. Princess pursued her passion and developed her dance technique training by completing a dance degree at University of NC at Greensboro. She taught classes at Triple Threat Dancenter in Winston-Salem and High Point and then went on to establish Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet in 2009.
Princess has choreographed four original ballets, has taught hundreds of students, and even led a team to bring world renowned ballerina, Misty Copeland to Greensboro, NC. In 2015, she hosted Alicia Graf Mack of Alvin Ailey for 31 choreography project. Three years later, she traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, where she created an outreach dance curriculum. She is a visionary and truly believes in the power of never losing your momentum.