JOHANNA WHITE: VERSATILE AMERICAN DANCE STAR WHOSE LIFE WAS BITTERSWEET, DEAD AT 84




Johanna White was born in WV in 1927 to James and Lee White. From an early age her home was filled with music as her father was a dancer, singer and musician, along with his brother Roscoe, in the "White Family String Band." From her father she learned Appalachian and "soft shoe" type dance, plus waltzes, polkas, and "The Charleston." As a child of the "great depression," she was enchanted with images from Hollywood and found inspiration in Shirley Temple. Formal training in tap and acrobatic began at age seven with Alma Ellison Britt in Charleston. WV. A favorite dance she did in recital was a recreation of Shirley Temple's "In Our Little Wooden Shoes."

Johanna was also highly inspired by the American music phenomena known as Jazz and was highly intrigued with the head majorette of Charleston's all black high school Garnett whom Johanna said was so fantastic it was as if she "parted the Red Sea" when she came down Capitol St.-the crowds were so "mesmerized." As a majorette in Junior High and High School Johanna estimated she marched "a million miles" in all kinds of weather. Band scholarship dance training was with Elizabeth Embleton, Ruth Keadle, and Helen Cox Schrader. As head majorette her senior year she trained and choreographed the majorette corps. She also trained, choreographed for, and performed in Dance Trio for Senior Class Programs.

After high school, Johanna continued tap, acrobatic, ballet and adagio with Helen Cox Schrader and it was at Helen's that she had her first taste of "Oriental Ethnic Dances" when she learned some Persian technique and also classical Indian dance with a guest instructor from India who commented that Johanna had "the graceful hands that the discipline requires." Johanna also made a good friend in fellow dancer Doris Rose.


It was while at Helen's that a "malaria stricken" vet named Bill Johnson returned from combat to find himself smitten with Johanna who was "all grown up now." To help Bill regain his strength Johanna encouraged Bill to enter dance training with her. He did and they danced in the chorus, solos, and as an "adagio" duo. They were members of the Schrader Touring Company that performed all over the Charleston area, and even took them to a stage in Albany, NY. It was through Helen that they met Mickey Rooney's dance partner in the Service, Jim Hetzer. Hetzer was an agent based out of Huntington, WV and he remained a friend for years.

                                                                    


Johanna and Bill were young and ambitious, so therefore they were overjoyed when presented with the opportunity to train with former "Premier Dancer Etoile" of the Brussels opera ballet Andre Van Damme. Andre was a passionate "Sagittarian" like Johanna, ironically even sharing the same birthday  of December 16th.

Johanna with Andre Van Damme and Julianne Kemp

When Andre arrived in Charleston, WV to start the American Academy of Ballet, he was a former member of the "underground" and had even hidden a gun in his boot while confronted by Nazis at the theatre. There were "hard feelings" unfortunately between the young couple that wanted to expand their horizens and their long time teacher/mentor Helen Cox Schrader when the former decided to defect to Andre's. (At this time Bill started using the stage name "William Leigh." He would also use the name "Claudius," "Jay," and "Turhan.")

Johanna in photo by her friend Lew Raines.

While with the Van Damme Company favorite roles for Johanna included "The Swan" as danced by Pavlova and the Ida Rubenstein role ("Girl on a Table") in "Bolero." They also toured in concert.





One day Johanna's father brought home some fibers from Carbide Chemical Corporation and told her that they wanted ideas for it's use. Johanna invented the first "Orlon Wig" when she created one for the "doll" in the ballet "Coppelia" and posed for photos with Bill as the "toy maker." Like many girls of her era, Johanna was inspired by the British art film masterpiece, "The Red Shoes."



Johanna and Bill were married on New Year's Eve 1948. By 1953 they bought a brand new trailer and took off  for Miami to join the Dade County Ballet (forerunner of the modern day Miami Ballet)for it's inaugural season. In Miami, Johanna and Bill danced leading roles in "Escapades of a Butterfly" and "Circus Life" in their production of "Ballet Carnival" and were coached by Alexander Gavrilov. Gavrilov was formerly of the Imperial Russian Ballet, St. Petersburg, was "Premier Danseur" in Diaghilev's Ballet (understudy to Vaslav Nijinsky), ballet master and choreographer, Covent Garden Royal Opera, London and the Metropolitan Opera, NYC. Gavrilov's great dane "Anoushka" excitedly rushed their vehicle when they arrived in Miami and Gavrilov cried out "You look like Maria Tallchief!" when he laid eyes on Johanna. Madame Laurka, the founder of the Dade Ballet, was expert in Chinese Character Dance and she gave Bill a special solo with a mask.

Johanna with members of the Dade County Ballet.


They were offered a scholarship to study and perform with Bernard Ostfeld, "premier danseur" and ballet master Rome Opera and La Scala in Milan and they defected to his company. They also studied with Charlene and Estrella in Miami and flamenco with film star Rita Hayworth's uncle Paco Cansino. Johanna and Bill also taught ballet in Miami area and performed in their own choreographic works in club dates, t.v. and concerts. Johanna's favorite appearances during this time were "Claire De Lune" and "Malaguena" in Bayfront Park Ampitheatre with the Civic Orchestra, the latter of which, Johanna recalled, "drove the Cubans mad with joy."(Johanna can be seen on YouTube doing her "Malaguena" number as a solo).




Around this time Johanna won the "May Wynn Evening Gown Competition" as her measurements were exactly that of the ingenue from the upcoming film "The Caine Mutiny." She modeled May Wynn's gown from the flick and was awarded a dress of her own.



Seeking a break from heat and humidity, Johanna and Bill decided to leave the Miami/Dade area and head north again. They decided to create their own act and joined the American Guild of Variety Artists. AGVA named them "Most Promising New Act" and were ranked by that union as "A-List" meaning they could only work "A-List" venues.

With the Ned Guthrie Band, WV

They worked with and made friends with many other top acts over the years including "The Diamonds," Les Paul and Mary Ford, Rowan and Martin, Jack E. Leonard, Vaughn Monroe, Alan Dale, Connie Francis and the Mills Brothers. They worked USO shows as well.


Inspired by predecessors in dance "Janik and Arnaut" they come up with their own "snake dance."

They became permanent residents of New York City in 1955. Johanna suffered the devastating loss of her father that Summer and another tragedy followed in 1956 when they lost their baby Teresa an hour after she was born. The child had internal deformities because Bill had the unusual genetic disorder with a heart that was on the right instead of the left.



They continued "flamenco" and "Spanish" dance training with Lola Bravo, Tito and Carmencita Lopez,  the very famous Juan Martinez and Antonita, and  with Tony Alba in Chicago.


They continued "adagio" training with Alberto Gallo and Maurice and studied "primitive" and "jazz" with Arleigh Peterson, Bob Josias, and the legendary Luigi. In New York City, they studied ballet under full scholarship with Igor Storojeff, of the Russian Ballet and soloist with the Russian Ballet and Sonia Dobrovinskaya of the Russian Ballet. They also studied ballet with Edward Caton of the Maryinsky School and Anna Pavlova's company and Anatole Vilzak of Ballet Russe.



Johanna and Bill (AKA "Jay and Joanne") also made trips home to West Virginia where they choreographed and appeared in productions of "Oklahoma" for the Charleston Light Opera Guild and "Of Thee I Sing" for the Kanawha Players. Around 1960 Johanna wanted to retire from dancing after many grueling years under her belt but Lola Bravo begged her not to quit.


Johanna had already rejected the idea of "belly dancing" when it was presented to her by an agent, but a fellow rehearsal studio dancer, Carolina Dinicu ("Morocco") finally twisted her arm into trying it. Johanna did and the rest was history. She fell in love with the Greek Oriental Nightclub Music scene and ended up a true pioneer. She worked every nightclub in the Greektown District along 8th Ave. and 29th St. and toured to other cities as well. She studied Middle Eastern and Greek dancing with Greek dance author Ted Petrides and Turkish/Balkan music and dance from "Baba" Ajdin Aslan.

One night she signed a "release" to be sketched and observed by artists for the cartoon opening of a new tv show. That show was "I Dream of Jeannie." Johanna was also very popular in Chicago's Greektown and made the cover of "The Chicago Welcome" magazine. One critic hailed her as the "most talented person who ever played Chicago" in any genre of show business.

Johanna was the first belly dancer to add wooden spoons to her act, inspired to do so by Armenian singer Sugar Mary Vartanian who played them while singing, the first to dance with a firepot on her head, the first to play cymbals on patron's water glasses, the first to dance with multiple veils, the first to be featured in Dance Magazine ("On the Gypsy Circuit"- December 1964), and the founder of the first Middle Eastern dance company in the United States, "Johanna's Oasis Ballet" which began around the time of the 1964 World's Fair in New York City with members Johanna, Turhan (Bill), Aiyupa, "Baba" Ajdin Aslan, Lutfi Guneri and Louis Platanias of the Arabian Nights Cafe.



Johanna's pupil and protege "Aiyupa" was the first belly dancer in the clubs to dance with a sword and when she married and retired, Johanna added the "Jezayire" sword dance she created for Aiyupa to her own repertoire and was then known for it. Around this time Johanna and Bill performed for Danny Thomas "Brotherhood Award Show" at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Miami. Johanna and Bill had hired Eddie "The Sheik" Kochak and Haki Obadia to do the music "charts" for their duo act, now they had their own company.



"Oasis Ballet" received a commendation from the University of PA at Philadelphia dance department and Ibrahim "Bobby" Farrah saw photos of their dance company on exhibition there. He had wanted to pursue his own interest in Middle Eastern Dance but said that he "never realized that a man could make it in the business" until he saw what Bill and Johanna were accomplishing in "Oasis." Inspired by "Oasis" in the beginning Bobby Farrah started working toward founding his own company which he eventually did by the 70's with a grant from tobacco heiress Doris Duke.


With other stars of the "Tayoun's Mahrajan" Mouniba Wakim, Little Sultona, Djamal Aslan, Ray Mirijanian, Bob Marashlian and Bob Sarkisian.




"Ballroom Dance Magazine" called Johanna "an erstwhile classicist" whose "lyrical performances were a far cry from those of some of the dubious cabaret hoofers who have taken up tummy tossing."

Johanna's dance company was a success and she was very proud of it as having her own dance company was her dream. They were stars of the Waldorf Astoria Ball of the Year in NYC ("Ballroom Dance Magazine"-May 1965), and the Tayoun's Mahrajan in New Jersey, and it was at the "mahrajan" that they were filmed for an MGM documentary that would eventually be released and play major cities. The "Oasis Company" was invited to "Jacob's Pillow" by Ted Shawn of the legendary Denishawn Dance Company and was set to perform at a folk festival at the request of the Sukarno goverment in Indonesia when the company suddenly had to disband when Bill walked out on their almost 18 year marriage. Johanna was heartbroken and inconsolable. She had rebuffed the advances in Greektown of shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis because of her devotion to Bill and the ruby intended for Johanna eventually ended up on the finger of Jackie Kennedy.


Johanna and Bill divorced and Johanna continued her solo career as an oriental dancer and eventually met Samir Al-Tawil, a singer, musician, composer, actor from Syria. Saudi Prince Obaid Turjoman asked Johanna and Samir to perform in his graduation piece for Columbia School of broadcasting and the show was broadcast in Saudi Arabia. Obaid also threw a banquet in Johanna's honor for the Saudi Students Association and accompanied her on oud while another student played the nai. Johanna also studied Saudi "Al-Ard" sword dance with Obaid.









Johanna was the favorite American born belly dancer of the famed Egyptian director Salah Abou Seif who hailed her as the "the best he'd seen" on a trip here, a favorite of khanun master Mohammed El-Akkad, and Johanna was asked to tour Egypt by famed Egyptian musician Khamis El-Fino and his wife Zizi Ali. Johanna was pregnant and had to turn them down. She gave birth to Aziza, was embroiled in a bitter paternity suit with Samir who she now learned was a "bigamist," and eventually continued performing as soon as the Al-Tawil scandal died down. She was also by now a "cover girl" for the "Alkawakeb" Arabic record label and "Balkan Records."


Johanna's dancing was admired by many top musicians like Oudi Hrant, Kaplanis, George Stratis, Saleas, Bebi Stergiou, Souren Baronian, Roupen Altiparmakian, and Anestos Athanasiou and she continued to be a sought after dancer throughout the 1970's. Johanna's daughter Aziza started belly dancing professionally at age one and was brought up in the scene.



Johanna and Aziza went to WV for a year when Aziza was five years old at the request of women from the St. George Syrian Orthodox Church and they co-taught 500 students at the Charleston YWCA ("East Side Women's Club"), including women from the Beni Kedem Temple "Ladies Auxiliary" whose Oriental Dance troupe went on to win their National Championship after being coached, trained and choreographed by Johanna and Aziza. Some of their students became "pros" and teachers as well and took what they learned into rural areas of WV, Ohio and Kentucky.

Fond memories of Linda Connor, Ellen O'Farrell "Eleni," Viola Ruth Burchette "Little Egypt," Elaine Haynes, Alexandria of Beckley,  ladies of the St. George Syrian Orthodox Church and ladies of the "Beni Kedem" Temple, Charleston, WV.
A lovely student of Johanna's, NYC.
Johanna and Aziza, 70's NYC





Johanna and Aziza were soloists but also performed together as "Oasis" with other guest dancers over the years.




With the late lovely "Princess" Cihan Isik of Turkey, a dear friend and co-star on "Turkish Voice."

Johanna and Aziza were guest stars for seven years on "The Turkish Voice" tv show on the Wometco network which was broadcast in NY, NJ and PA and also in Ankara, Turkey.
Friends and Co-Stars from Turkish Voice, Farhat and Alexandra Alpar of the Alpar Center.
Young Aziza, "Like Mother, Like Daughter."



Johanna, assisted by Aziza, opened the first belly dance supply/costume shop in NYC called "The Belly Dance Shop." Johanna and Aziza performed and presented a fashion show at the request of a graduating class at Fashion Institute of Technology. Johanna, being a free spirited type had invented the "scarf skirt" for belly dancing and had started selling and marketing it to other dancers.


The owner of Washington DC's The Astor came to New York to seek out Johanna and Aziza to offer an engagement but they decided to return to WV-Johanna had suffered a terrible bout of "Narcolepsy" after a period of over-working herself and instead decided to go home to WV and her mother for a rest.

Soon thereafter, Johanna's mother Lee died of a brain tumor (her beloved father had died in 1955 of a massive cerebral hemhorrage). Johanna and Aziza joined the American Federation of Musicians and started performing again in various genres including as jazz dancers and percussionists with The Straw Hatters Dixieland Band and the Fat Sam Band. Johanna had retired from belly dancing in clubs around 1981 but performed with Aziza in concert and on video between Aziza's nightclub engagements. They moved to Boston,  Orlando, and then North Carolina. By the mid 90's Johanna considered herself retired completely from show business, happy just to hold her cat in her lap and stop to smell the roses. Johanna loved music and was a true free spirit where that was concerned.

Her last public performance was at a party in NC. Johanna was 73 and could still move. Fortunately, the performance was recorded and is on youtube.

Johanna and Aziza had experienced some terrible times while living in North Carolina, Johanna had written friends in NYC, including her old friend "Morocco" of her unhappiness,  and were close to moving back to New York when tragedy struck. Johanna experienced a sudden, debilitating, and degenerative illness with stroke symptoms and was hospitalized in December of 2011. After a nightmarish experience in a hospital over the controversial drug prednisone, abuse from staff, and "hospital acquired bacterial infections," Johanna was moved to a nursing home. With her usual fighting spirit she was on the road to recovery when she suddenly fell ill again and passed away on "International Women's Day," March 8th, 2012. Cause of death was "septic shock." She was 84 years old.

On her paternal side, Johanna was a descendant of "Mayflower" pilgrims William and Susanna White, was cousin of Mary Lee Epling Hartford Fairbanks, and a cousin-in-law of Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. She was also a cousin to members of the "House of Windsor," England, a distant cousin of actress Carol Burnett, and a relative of Salvatore De Renzi, the father of "evidence based medicine." She was also a distant cousin of another notorious "dancing family" from WV, D.Ray White and his son Jesco "The Dancing Outlaw." On her maternal side she was a direct descendant of Lord Falconer of Haikertown, Scotland.

Johanna was a life long, strict "vegetarian" and loved animals. She was a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic person who loved the art and culture of the world. She was English, Scottish, Balkan Gypsy, Greek, and Native American. Johanna was also a talented set designer and photographer who took pride in photographing her daughter Aziza in costume for her portfolio. She was a member of the Catholic Faith but respected and appreciated all religions. She was preceded in death by her parents, her baby Teresa, and her ex-husband and long time dance partner William C. Johnson who passed in April of 2011.

She is survived by her loving daughter/dance partner/collaborator/co-designer and "best friend" Aziza.
Johanna designed this card for she and Aziza. Their collaboration lasted until Johanna's illness.



Johanna White 1927-2012 and William C. Johnson 1923-2011
Rest in Peace, you were "PIONEERS!"

In lieu of flowers, donations for final arrangements & continuing Johanna's Legacy in Dance are being taken at "PayPal" address:


Contact for Aziza Al-Tawil:

A beautiful memorial T-Shirt featuring a photo of Johanna by photographer Boris Bakchy is available at this link on Amazon:
https://amzn.to/2FFvOoL

Johanna on Youtube

                                           "Malaguena":

"Johanna: 1960's Belly Dance Star"

"Aziza Al-Tawil and Johanna: "Syrto-Tsifte Telli" - Greek Dance in a Classic Style"

"Aziza Al-Tawil and Johanna: "The Charleston"

Acknowledgements:

A special "Thank You" to Shira (Iowa) of shira.net for "being there" for Johanna during her hospitalization.

Amara Al-Amir of NYC & NC for giving Johanna and Aziza the Middle Eastern Dance Leaders Society "Mother/Daughter Legacy Award."

Jimmy Tigges for profiling the story of Johanna and Samir Al-Tawil for his book "Delftse Toeren 2" (Hit song "Linda-Linda" by Samir was originally written for Johanna) http://www.jimmytigges.nl/

Dr. Artsvi Bakhchinyan for profiling Aziza, Johanna and Samir Al-Tawil in Armenian language newspapers. Dr. Bakhchinyan teaches language courses in Venice.

To dear friends Bill Watkins and Pastor Denalee Baylor who brought comfort and friendship to Johanna during her last days.

Also, special thanks to Norma of Detroit, Michael, Esther, Melissa, and Bettie Jean for your concerned phone calls to the hospital.

Also a special and warm thank you to Eddie and Teressa Spencer of "Spencer Funeral Home" of Mount Airy, NC for their loving support to the family in their hour of heartbreak. God bless them: http://spencerfuneralhome.com/

Terri Engle, chaplain at Forsyth Hospital, without you I never would have been able to walk away from her body after the horror of seeing her pronounced dead. Your vigil with me, which lasted for hours, got me through the pain. I will never forget you.



MORE ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS and SPECIAL THANKS:

Annitra Ravenmoon, Los Angeles area belly dancing, http://www.powergoddessesunleashed.com/, http://www.nubiandivas.com/
Anzelle and Tony Pieretti

Christiane Truelove

"Gypsyfire of Boston" Authentic Belly Dancing, Master Teacher, www.myspace.com/Gypsyfire4  or desertrose4022@yahoo.com

Latifa of "Latifa's School of Middle Eastern Dance" in MD www.bintbeled.com

Samira Tu'Ala and "Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive"  http://www.bellydanceintensive.com/index.php?pag=cms&id=131

"Serafina Dances," Chicago, http://www.serafinadances.net/


Related Links:

About Janik and Arnaut's Snake Dance: http://janik-et-arnaut.com/

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