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Bernice Virginia Milbrey, affectionately known to all as BJ, was born to Charles and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Williams Milbrey in Portsmouth, Virginia on November 22, 1911. At the start of the Harlem Renaissance, Lizzie and her sister Dora headed to New York determined to pursue showbiz careers. When success came, Lizzie sent for a teenage Bernice, who followed in her mother’s footsteps taking dance classes at the Grace Giles Studio in Harlem. Bernice became a chorus girl at The Cotton Club where she broke the color line, and then moved on to The Apollo Theatre where she became a featured dancer. Agnes De Mille saw Bernice perform in a show starring Ethel Waters and invited her to classes. Ultimately De Mille cast Bernice in the Broadway musicals Black Ritual and Swingin’ the Dream, and BJ went on to perform in Hot Mikado.
Bernice married Earl Hines saxophonist Albert “Budd” Jackson Johnson III in 1940, and left her performing career when their only child, Albert “Lil Budd” Johnson IV was born in 1942. But life as a housewife was not Bernice’s style, and she was soon teaching dance out of the basement of her Queens home. She presented her first recital in June of 1949 and within just a few years was forced to move to larger quarters. She rented a building on Sutphin Boulevard, “Bernice” became “BJ”, and a legacy began.
Hidden away in Southeast Queens was BJ’s haven of artistic excellence, where the owner of the first black-owned dance studio in Queens worked her deep showbiz connections and recruited top entertainers to teach her students. Cholly Atkins, Arthur Mitchell, Jo Jo Smith, Frank Hatchett, Martial Roumain and Butterfly McQueen are just a few who shared their brilliance with her students.
BJ’s focus was on building “performers”. Her methods were unique and the results impressive. She reached into her vaudeville past and presented shows in which her students tapped wearing roller skates and pointe shoes, or using xylophones, hula hoops and jump ropes. Dancers ran up walls and tapped on steps. African dancers played with fire and snakes (Curly and Snookums – an 8 foot boa constrictor and a ball python – were studio pets), and got lowered from ropes in the ceiling. BJ painted dancers gold from head to toe to draw attention from their lack of technique. She taught “counterpoint” as a way of spicing up a simple number. Students tried to push down brick walls as BJ taught isometrics and the lesson that true tension brought emotion to dance. She staged mammoth musical productions that called for her dancers to sing and act and refused to listen when told that Lil’ Abner was played out. Her dancers could sing because BJ had made them belt Happy Birthday at the top of their lungs. Her students could improvise at the drop of a dime because BJ had thrown them onto the stage to save a dying number. A BJ dancer could learn a combination faster than anyone else because everyone wanted to be in the front line. Those trained by BJ learned every section and part of a number because they knew that anyone was replaceable. BJ’s “kids” had not only talent, but confidence and a competitive edge that gave them a distinct advantage.
The accomplishments of her students are impressive. Over 200 of her “kids” were accepted into the High School of Performing Arts. During the 60s, 70s and 80s nary a Broadway show went up without a BJ dancer in its cast. She boasted dancers in companies such as Alvin Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Twyla Tharp, Lar Lubovitch, and Ballet Hispanico. BJ bred stars and became a proud parent with Lester Wilson choreographing Solid Gold and Saturday Night Fever for John Travolta, while Michael Peters was widely regarded as the man who transformed music videos after Michael Jackson’s Beat It and Thriller, and Ben Vereen won over the world as Roots’“Chicken George” and became Bob Fosse’s muse.
BJ always urged her alumni to come home and pass on their knowledge to the next generation. And as her students became celebrities, BJ reminded them to stay grounded, and was quick to present crowbars or feather dusters to those whose heads swelled. Her constant reminder that “today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster” kept many an ego in check. And this was just one of BJ’s many “words of wisdom” sayings. In the kingdom where the H.N.I.C. ruled, everyone knew there was “No such word as can’t”. And somehow because BJ said it – it became a reality. All of her students were expected to “MAKE IT!”. She taught her babies with engaging sayings. “If you point that way you turn that way” taught many a child which way to go. She asked insubordinates “Whose name is on the door?”. She instructed beginner pointe students to “Come to Mommy” as they dragged themselves across the floor using chairs. She suggested typing to those who couldn’t keep up, expected her men to dance like men, and taught the boys that partnered to throw themselves under any girl they dropped to break their fall. All of her students learned more than dance. They learned discipline, professionalism, and became part of a family. BJ’s life lessons helped produce doctors and lawyers and judges and police officers and school teachers, and of course, the best dancers in town.
BJ staged recitals for thousands at Avery Fisher Hall, Carnegie Hall, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, while other neighborhood dancing schools were performing in school auditoriums. She choreographed and directed cotillions at the Waldorf Astoria and the Hotel St. George. She received awards and recognition galore. She was friends with Rockefellers and the likes of Dizzie Gillespie and Billy Eckstein. BJ dreamed big and aimed high, and her students reaped the rewards.
From her Shore Avenue basement to her final home on Merrick Boulevard, BJ’s legions followed her loyally for over 50 years. In 2000 The Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center closed its doors due to BJ’s declining health, but her alumni continue to grace the stage and screen, and her lessons will be taught for years to come as schools and dance companies led by BJ’s former students continue the legacy across the country.
BJ died peacefully in her sleep at home on October 7, 2005. She was 94 years young and still tapping. She leaves behind a host of loving family, friends and students, and a legacy that will not soon be forgotten.
A Memorial Service and celebration of BJ's life and legacy will be held at the "famed" LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts on Sunday November 11, 2005.