Chase Johnsey Dances His Way to Equality for All
By Mike Jeknavorian
Chase Johnsey, who grew up in Winter Haven, Florida, and trained at the Florida Dance Theatre in Polk Country, gave up an almost 15-year career with the Trockadero (an all-male drag ballet company in New York) in 2018 because of alleged discrimination. On the heels of his resignation, Johnsey made headlines when he was contracted by the English National Ballet for a role as a female ensemble member in Sleeping Beauty. With Johnsey’s role in Sleeping Beauty, he became the first male dancer to perform as part of a female ensemble for any international ballet company. However, his path to the role hasn’t been easy and already petite, Johnsey further reshaped his body by losing 20 pounds, and he had facial surgery to feminize his features. As Hollywood beckons with the possibility of a role in a major motion picture, Johnsey is currently filming a documentary with HBO about his journey.
MIKE JEKNAVORIAN: You grew up in Winter Haven. What do you miss about it?
CHASE JOHNSEY: I think more than anything, I miss my friends and family. However, I also always make time to go back to really remember where I came from. Going home and driving those very streets I came from always humbles me and makes me appreciative of how far that I’ve come.
MJ: Were you a fan of Cypress Gardens?
CJ: I was a fan of Cypress Gardens, and the traditional aspects of what it meant to the culture in that area. The ski show, the southern belles, and the gardens of Cypress Gardens are very fond memories of my childhood.
MJ: What do you like about South Florida?
CJ: I’ve spent lots of time in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Of course, the nightlife is incredible there, but also there’s a rich dance scene there. I was honored to perform numerous times at the Arsht Center and The Fillmore Miami Beach. One of my most influential coaches was a former principal with the Miami City Ballet. Her name is Iliana Lopez, and she now has a school in Naples, Florida. She was always so understanding of who I was and always encouraged me to be different.
MJ: How do you identify?
CJ: I identify more closely with being genderfluid.
MJ: What initially drew you to ballet and dance?
CJ: I was dancing in front of the television to Billy Rae Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart,” and my parents put me in dance. From there, I just never left it.
MJ: Your high school teachers discouraged you from pursuing ballet because you didn’t have the typical “heroic” physique. Do you think that his or her discouragement only made you stronger, or was it a hindrance?
CJ: I have never been one to let other people set limitations on me. I did, however, know that if I wanted to be a ballet dancer, that the road wouldn’t be an easy one. I knew that if I wanted to have a significant career, that I would need to go down a unique path. That’s why I chose Trockadero, because I knew I could be successful there. Now that the world has opened up, I have more options.
MJ: Out of all your awards and accolades, which one is the most special to you?
CJ: I think any of the times that I have made history are prideful moments. Being nominated for Best Male Performance in a Female Role was significant for me and winning Best Male Dancer at the National Dance Awards in the U.K. is a special award. Being the first genderfluid dancer to dance among a corps de ballet of females will also always be a huge milestone in my story, because it opened the doors up for so many other people.
MJ: What dance role do you cherish the most?
CJ: I think that I loved Kitri in Don Quixote the most. I worked so hard on that role, and I truly loved the character. I think that the piece accentuated my strengths as a dancer and actor.
MJ: Do you think that females should be allowed to dance in the Trocks again?
CJ: This is a very hot topic for me, and much of why I left them. I am a firm believer that if you can do something, then you should be able to do it. Drag is an aesthetic, and, as you said, if you’re able to carry off the look, dance well, and be funny, then I don’t see why not.
MJ: Should women be able to perform male roles in ballet?
CJ: Again, I don’t think this is a gender issue but a look at ability. I think that ballet needs to be more open to possibility.
MJ: A ballerina requires equal strength as a man, but must cloak that strength within the confines of femininity. Considering this, do you think that it’s harder to dance female parts in ballet as opposed to the male ones?
CJ: For me, personally, I think the way that I move naturally I’m more suited to the female roles. However, it does come with a different set of challenges. To be feminine is to try not to be feminine. It’s how you approach the steps and all of the details that come with the work itself.
MJ: You said that you learned how to put on makeup because of the drag community. Do you think that transgendered females should be allowed to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
CJ: I absolutely think they should, and I think that the show is stagnating and suffering because they don’t include transgender women. Drag is an aesthetic and the show really only judges on creativity and execution; rarely do they applaud “pass-ability.” I think that drag has always pushed the limits, and I found it bizarre that the show wouldn’t be inclusive, considering that the world is ready for it.
MJ: Who’s your favorite drag performer?
CJ: I have many, but I really love Sasha Colby. She’s a dancer herself, and she always gives a phenomenal and dynamic performance.
MJ: Do you think that all awards should be gender neutral?
CJ: This is a very complex question, and I’m not sure of which way to deal with it. A lot of this is very new to the world, and I think that if a gender neutral person is nominated or wins an award, that we have to address it then. But, I do believe that individuals should be awarded for their talent, and not based on segregating gender.
MJ: What’s your dream role in dance?
CJ: I would love to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker!
MJ: What’s your dream role in film or TV?
CJ: I think that my dream role would be to play a genderfluid person. I would really love to be on the next season of Pose.
MJ: What Hollywood dancer do you admire?
CJ: Cyd Charisse, of course.
MJ: And finally, what is your dream for equality?
CJ: I wish that everyone was seen as individuals. What’s been refreshing is the open mindedness in the younger generation. The younger high-school-aged students that have trained in the same facilities as I have appeared to fully understand what I do, and they never need to be convinced or have things explained to them. I love that and it makes me very excited. We’ll have a generation of open-minded kids that will grow up and liberate the world and even more.