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Elle Johnson, 83; Modern Dancer and Teacher

Times Staff Writer

Elle Johnson, a mainstay of modern dance and choreography in Los Angeles who was known for weaving ethnic themes into her dances and performing them with members of her own troupe, the Elle Johnson Dance Company, has died. She was 83.

Johnson, who taught modern dance for more than 50 years, died March 10 at her home in Los Angeles. She died of natural causes, her husband, Rollie Lawson, told The Times.

“Elle maintained her vision of dance and inspired younger dancers right through her life,” said Rudy Perez, a choreographer who teaches dance at the Westside Academy of Dance where Johnson also taught in recent years. “She was the last of the dance visionaries of her generation.”

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Johnson graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in fine arts in 1942. She went to New York City to study dance with Kathryn Dunham, whose hallmark as a choreographer was ethnic-flavored modern dance.

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Johnson moved to Los Angeles in the late 1940s and joined the Lester Horton Company. Horton too used ethnic themes, as well as jazz music in his choreography. Johnson was a featured dancer in several of his original works.

After Horton’s death in 1953 she formed her own small dance troupe, performing with them locally, nationally and internationally.

She often worked African and Afro-Cuban motifs into her choreography in dances such as “Swadeski.” Other dances, including “Soleus” were abstract works set to jazz music.

“Elle was an inspiration,” said Dolores Terry, Johnson’s student in the late 1940s, who continues to dance professionally. “She was a very good teacher and a good disciplinarian.”

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In 1970 Johnson joined the teaching staff of the Music Center Dance Academy, a short-lived venture based at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles. The school was intended for beginner- to professional-level students. Johnson taught modern dance classes. Stanley Holden, formerly of London’s Royal Ballet, was the academy’s director and taught ballet.

Johnson and her troupe continued to perform around the city at high schools and in smaller theater spaces. The company built a loyal following which dance critics often commented on in their reviews.

“Dance evenings at Elle Johnson’s diminutive Academy West Theater are enjoyable,” wrote a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times in 1971, referring to one dance space where Johnson’s group performed. “The surroundings may be somewhat primitive, but there is always an enthusiasm in the air which transcends the discomfort of hard chairs and awkward sightlines.”

In 1999, Johnson was awarded the Lester Horton Dance Award for her contributions as a teacher, by the members of the Dance Resource Center in Los Angeles. She retired from teaching several years later.

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Johnson was married three times. She is survived by her third husband, two daughters and one son from previous marriages, and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. April 2 at the Westside Academy of Dance, 1709 Stewart St. in Santa Monica.


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