Virginia Johnson says she and the Dance Theater of Harlem have grown up together. ``When I joined 15 years ago, it was just four dancers working with founder Arthur Mitchell in the basement of a church and I was a student majoring in ballet at New York University.''
Today, the company has 53 dancers and is an internationally renowned troupe that performs all over the world, including a recent two-week debut at the Metropolitan Opera House. ``It has been an incredible growing-together process.''
At the same time, Ms. Johnson has emerged as the dance group's star performer. But when she was recently given a 1985 Young Achiever Award by the National Council of Women of the United States, she was cited as not only a ``consummate ballerina,'' but also one who al- ways finds the time to share her art with young people.
``I love working with children,'' she said at the award ceremonies in New York. ``I think one of the things we have to do in the ballet company is to keep expanding our audience. So many little kids think of ballet as something that is stuffy or remote from them, so we have to show and explain and get the spark of interest started.''
Someday, she says, when her career changes, ``I'd like to reach very young children. I would like to be part of that first dance experience in their lives. That would be most exciting to me.''
Now, despite a demanding class, rehearsal, and performance schedule, she manages time to conduct master classes, present lecture/demonstrations, and answer questions after performances. One observer says of these sessions, ``Virginia is always an inspiration to youngsters, with her gentleness, composure, and modesty, and she knows how to motivate them toward excellence.''
From the time she was a small child growing up in Washington, D.C., says Ms. Johnson, she would dance around the living room to the music from the one classical radio station. ``I wanted to be that music,'' she remembers. Although she was exposed later to ballet, art, and piano lessons, ballet was her first love. ``I thought that being a dancer would be the greatest thing that I could do with my life.''
Her mother, Madeline Johnson, who taught physical education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., recalled that ``when Virginia first started taking ballet, I thought she might end up a little black girl with no place to go.'' But her little girl has gone far and fast.
Ms. Johnson continues to refine and broaden her skills and to thoroughly research her roles. She says that Giselle was the first ballet she loved and that she has learned more from it than any other. Her ideal dancer, she says, is Russia's Natalia Makarova. ``I think of her when I have to tell a story and deal with technique.''
Mayor Koch of New York, at the dance group's opening night ceremonies at Lincoln Center, awarded the troupe a $142,000 teaching grant and commended director Arthur Mitchell for ``. . . incorporating his art into the life of New York City.''
Ms. Johnson has toured the US, Europe, Australia, and Japan, and has been acclaimed by Ballet News magazine as ``the first black prima ballerina.''