Lisa Johnson-Willingham

Director

Lisa Johnson-Willingham became director of Ailey Extension in 2011, expanding Alvin Ailey’s vision that dance is for everybody through innovative and accessible dance programs for students of all ages, levels, and backgrounds. Under her leadership, the program has continued to thrive since its inception in 2005, attracting over 83,000 new students and incorporating virtual offerings to reach a global audience of over 43,000 students in more than 70 countries. In addition to creating annual workshops like Ailey Experience and student performance workshops such as Voices and Visions and World Dance Celebration; Lisa has further enriched Ailey Extension’s public programming by hosting premiere guest artists including Judith Jamison, Robert Battle, Les Twins, Yanis Marshall, and Pretty BIG Movement; and creating legacy panels with revered dancers and choreographers such as Renee Robinson and Sarita Allen. 

 

For five years (1994-1999), Ms. Johnson-Willingham was a member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater under the artistic direction of Judith Jamison. Throughout her career, she also danced with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, New World Dance Company, Donald Byrd/The Group, Joel Hall Dance Company, Deeply Rooted Productions, Footprints, and Cerqua/Rivera Art Experience. 

 

During her time with the Ailey Company, Ms. Johnson-Willingham was invited by Judith Jamison to choreograph for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater during its 40th Anniversary Season – a piece entitled Restricted (1998). While living in Chicago, she choreographed for many prominent dance companies, theater productions, and musicals at the Goodman Theater, Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago Dramatist, and Congo Square Theater Company. 

 

Ms. Johnson-Willingham's leadership experience in the arts includes a decade-long position as Director of AileyCamp Chicago, heading dance programs at the Dance Conservatory of Chicago High School for the Arts and Whitney Young Magnet High School, and teaching positions at Columbia College, Olive Harvey College, and Joffrey Ballet Academy of Dance. 

 

Throughout her nearly thirty-year history with Ailey, Lisa has been passionate about mentoring aspiring dancers, such as Ailey II dancers Martell Ruffin and Brena Thomas and Ailey dancer Solomon Dumas – who was a group leader and instructor at AileyCamp Chicago during her tenure and in 2016 became the first former AileyCamper to earn a role as member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. 

 

A Washington, D.C. native, Ms. Johnson-Willingham attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and is a graduate of University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She currently lives in New Jersey with her two children, Quincy and Noah. 

 

Featured News Releases

Ailey All Access Premieres Special Cry Film Adaptation on Mother's Day In Conjunction With The 50th Anniversary Of The Beloved Work

New York, NY – April 30, 2021 – The Ailey organization is furthering the pioneering vision of its founder by “bringing dance back to the people” and lifting spirits through Ailey All Access, a series of online offerings including streaming of free performance broadcasts, Ailey Extension dance and fitness classes, and more. In a joyful nod to the 50th anniversary of Alvin Ailey’s beloved work, Cry, viewers will be treated to a new film adaptation of Jacqueline Green interpreting the extraordinary solo premiering on a Mother’s Day Matinee, on Sunday, May 9 at 3pm EDT. Created as a birthday present for Alvin Ailey’s mother Mrs. Lula Cooper, Cry debuted May 4, 1971 and is dedicated to “all Black women everywhere – especially our mothers.”

Ailey Extension And AREA Atlanta Join Forces To Host Classes Led By Stars Of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater During First-Ever Virtual Ailey Experience Destination Dance Atlanta Workshop Series

(New York) January 27, 2021 – For the first time in the five-year history of its collaboration, Ailey Extension and AREA Atlanta are coming together to make the multi-day Ailey Experience Destination Dance Atlanta event into a virtual affair. This year’s participants are in for a unique treat, as the workshops will be taught by current Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company members. The three-day weekend experience immerses greater Atlanta residents in the spirit of Ailey with classes in Horton, contemporary, and West African techniques, while introducing dancers to the exciting world of choreography, creativity, and fun in a non-competitive environment. These classes and the preceding panel discussion allow participants to learn the rich history of Ailey’s signature style and how he changed the perception of American modern dance.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Invites Viewers To Enjoy Family Programs During Ailey Forward - First-Ever Virtual Season Celebrating Six Decades Of Revelations

New York – December 4, 2020 – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater invites families around the world to gather for special family programming during Ailey Forward – the Company’s first-ever virtual holiday season. Led by Artistic Director Robert Battle, Ailey’s extraordinary dancers will elevate a legacy of artistic innovation and excellence while celebrating six decades of Alvin Ailey’s timeless Revelations. Nine presentations through the holidays, each available free online for a week, carry on the tradition of uplifting audiences and making dance accessible to all with engaging family-friendly programs and interactive experiences to uplift and unite across generations.

Featured Press Coverage

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Dance Teacher - What My Teacher Taught Me: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Solomon Dumas On Lisa Johnson-Willingham

When I was in high school, my friends at The Chicago Academy for the Arts told me about Lisa Johnson-Willingham, an impressive former Ailey dancer who was teaching Horton at Joel Hall Dancers & Center on Thursday nights. I decided I ought to give her class a try. The first time I went, I didn’t even pay for class. In fact, I don’t think I ever paid for her class. She was tough as nails, but she was always generous. The room was packed with people from all over the city. From modern dancers to professional ballet dancers to young students—everyone wanted to learn from her. Her classroom got so hot from sweaty bodies that the windows completely fogged up and contrasted the cold night outside.