Dance Theatre Of Harlem’s Virginia Johnson To Receive Award For Lifetime Achievement In Dance

July 22, 2023

The New York Dance and Performance Awards, The Bessies, New York City’s premier dance awards honoring outstanding creative work in the field.

Are thrilled to announce that Virginia Johnson, founding member and former artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, will receive the 2023 Bessie Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance. Michele Byrd-McPhee, founder and executive director of Ladies of Hip-Hop, will receive this year’s award for Outstanding Service to the Field of Dance. Both awards will be presented at the 39th Bessie Awards Ceremony on Friday, August 4, 2023, at 7:30pm, at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park as part of Lincoln Center’s Summer for the City. Admission is free.

To pre-register for tickets, click here.

For more information, visit the 39th Bessie Awards Ceremony.

In announcing the awards, New York Dance and Performance Awards Executive Director Heather Robles said, “Virginia Johnson and Michele Byrd-McPhee are both pioneering women in the arts. As artists and advocates, they have impacted countless lives, forwarding the legacy of each of their art forms, while simultaneously leading them into new futures. The Bessies are proud to celebrate their outstanding careers and contributions to the field of dance.”

Founding member and former principal dancer, Virginia Johnson, was appointed Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem by Arthur Mitchell in 2010. Born in Washington, D.C., Johnson graduated from the Academy of the Washington School of Ballet and briefly attended New York University as a University Scholar before joining DTH in 1969. Universally recognized as one of the great ballerinas of her generation, she was cast in classical, neoclassical, and contemporary works, but is perhaps best known for her performances in the ballets GiselleA Streetcar Named Desire, and Fall River Legend, each of which was videotaped for broadcast. While still performing, Johnson ventured into choreography but her interest in journalism led her to Fordham University where she pursued a degree in communications. After retiring from performing, an Independent Artist grant from The Field led to an exploration of arts presenting. At the School of Visual Arts, Johnson studied serigraphy, film-making, and television production before the opportunity to create POINTE magazine presented itself. She was founding editor-in-chief of that magazine from 2000 to 2009.

Her honors include a Young Achiever Award from the National Council of Women, Outstanding Young Woman of America Award, the Dance Magazine Award, a Pen and Brush Achievement Award, the Washington Performing Arts Society’s 2008–2009 Pola Nirenska Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2009 Martha Hill Fund Mid-Career Award, and honorary doctorates from Cornish College of the Arts, Swarthmore College, and Juilliard. She is an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and The Society, Inc. In February 2016 Johnson was honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House for her contribution to the field of dance. In 2018 Johnson held the Brackett Visiting Artist Chair at the University of Oklahoma, she is also a recipient of the Mary Day Award from the Washington Ballet and the 2019 CORPS de Ballet International Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2020 she was presented with a medal of honor from the Actor’s Fund and in 2023 she was presented with Dance Films Association’s Dance in Focus Award. She serves on the advisory boards of The Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU and Dance/NYC, as well as on the Board of Works & Process. In July 2023 Johnson officially stepped down as artistic director and passed artistic leadership of DTH to Robert Garland, DTH’s resident choreographer.

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A tireless advocate for girls and women, Michele Byrd-McPhee is the founder and executive director of Ladies of Hip-Hop, a non-profit organization empowering girls and women through Hip-Hop culture and arts. Byrd-McPhee has been working for decades to recontextualize spaces and conversations about Hip-Hop culture along gender, sex, cultural, socio-historical, and racial lines, as well as situating Black dance forms, theories, dance techniques, and the value of the lived artistic experience in spaces that honor and acknowledge cultural roots along with the many creative pioneers who have shaped them. This is especially important given the ways in which Black dance has been co-opted, and appropriated without acknowledgment to its community and cultural origins. Byrd-McPhee earned her BS from Temple University and an MS in Nonprofit Arts Management from Drexel University.

She also worked for many years in TV and arts production, working as a production coordinator at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then as a senior music coordinator at Late Night with Seth Meyers. She is honored to have served as a former Bessie Selection Committee member. In 2020 Byrd-McPhee was awarded an Integrated Arts Residency Fellowship grant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she taught her course Hip-Hop, Women and the World. Presently, she is relishing her roles as a performer and production manager for The Jazz Continuum, along with her ongoing commitment as executive director for Ladies of Hip-Hop and artistic director of LDC (LOHH Dance Collective).

A list of the 2023 Bessie nominees can be found at 2023 Bessie Nominees.


The 39th Bessie Awards Ceremony

Friday, August 4, at 7:30pm (Rain date: Sunday, August 6)

Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center

Presented as part of Lincoln Center’s Summer for the City

Admission is free

To pre-register for tickets, click here.

Stay afterward for a free, live DJ’d Bessies Silent Disco After-Party on Josie Robertson Plaza!

The Bessies

The New York Dance and Performance Awards have saluted outstanding and groundbreaking creative work in the dance field in New York City for 39 years. Known as “The Bessies” in honor of revered dance teacher Bessie Schönberg, the awards were established in 1984 by David R. White at Dance Theater Workshop. They recognize choreography, performance, music composition,  visual design, legacy, and service to the field of dance by independent dance artists and organizations. Nominees are chosen by a selection committee composed of artists, presenters, producers, and writers. All those working in the dance field are invited to join the Bessies Membership and participate in annual discussions on the direction of the awards and nominate members to serve on the selection committee. For more information about The Bessies, visit

The 2022–2023 Bessie Awards Selection Committee: Tyler Ashley, Elizabeth Burke, Tymberly Canale, Yoshiko Chuma, Donna Costello, Porshia A. Derival, Tiffany Geigel, Valerie Green, Satsu Holmes, William Isaac, Anabella Lenzu, Gian Marco Riccardo Lo Forte, Shalewa Mackall, Yoko Murakami, Ivan Talijančić, and Kate Thomas.

The Bessies Steering Committee: Paz Tanjuaquio (chair), Yvonne H. Chow, Stanford Makishi, maura nguyễn donohue, Nicky Paraiso, Craig Peterson, Tiffany Rea-Fisher, george emilio sanchez, and Charmaine Warren.

Photo credit: DTH Artistic Director Virginia Johnson. Photo by Theik Smith.

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