The Trove: djassi daCosta johnson

Mrs. Verini: djassi daCosta johnson, 2 months pregnant.

djassi daCosta johnson adores her “ridiculously amazing family.”  It is in the haven of their embrace and the freedom of their trust that she’s been able to move fearlessly through her life. Her educator parents Awolowo and Orundun, of whom she speaks reverentially, anointed their eldest daughter with the nom de guerre of revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, (Abel) Djassi. Brought together by “the Movement,” the former SNCC worker and the former Black Panther secretary instilled in their four children a sense of activism, pride of heritage, hunger for knowledge, love of movement and spiritual grounding.

When we first met, djassi was a Bantu-knotted, hoodie-rocking Essence magazine intern rapturously in love with her tween sister, Yaya. An admitted “fool for a party,” the fly Virgo moved fluidly between the worlds of academia, professional dance, media and the clubs. More than fifteen years later she feels “blessed to have found my best friend in my little sister,” is planning graduate study and enjoying a dance career that has taken her around the globe, expanded her notions of her art and paved the way for marriage and motherhood.

I spent a recent afternoon with the new mom, her husband Corrado and their delightful daughter, Mirahl in their Brooklyn home as they prepared to summer in his native Rome. Sipping wine, we marveled over the body’s tremendous capacity for healing. Awed by the “wondrous abilities of the human body,” djassi the dancer bowed to djassi the mother. “I always thought I knew my body so well. I’m so proud of what it’s done and what it can do, but then I was also humbled by its limits,” she said recalling the arduous journey of Mirahl’s birth. Her infant warrior woman is a testament to the “strength that humans have and the will to survive.”

After a “normal” pregnancy, a love-filled karaoke baby shower and the full expectation that she, a mind-bogglingly fit woman would move through a water birth with relative ease, life-threatening complications arose. For 42 drug-free hours she labored, but sensing something was “off,” she resisted the urge to push and her midwife took heed. It was discovered that pushing risked strangulation of the baby by the twice-wrapped umbilical cord around her neck as well as uterine rupture and severe hemorrhage for djassi who inexplicably presented with Placenta Increta. Mirahl arrived via emergency Caesarean. Her name hints at the miraculous and its Turkish definition, “little gazelle” befits the daughter of a dancer/choreographer. In homage to Corrado’s grandmother Vera and djassi’s grandmother Lucille, Mirahl carries two middle names, Vera Lu.

Little Mirahl was born December 28, 2010.

Besotted with their baby girl, dja and Corrado are grateful for djassi’s protective intuition and honored by Mirahl’s having chose them. “My parents were very affectionate, I felt one hundred percent unconditionally loved,” djassi muses. “I hope I can pass that on.”

The striking DaCosta Johnson family: Orundun and Awolowo; first-born Mamadou, youngest Djani and…

Camara Yaya and djassi Camara, then and now. Their shared name Camara, means “comrade.”

The Johnson children were all educated in the Montessori tradition, at St. Michael’s where their mother taught. Djassi recalls getting “mommy practice” with Yaya and Djani (eight and ten years younger) when her mom spent summers away in Ohio pursuing Master’s studies in Montessori.  Mrs. DaCosta Johnson would eventually open Central Harlem Montessori, “the only accredited Montessori School in Harlem and the least expensive one in NYC for sure,” djassi says proudly.  Now retired, her dad was a Professor of Sociology at several New York City colleges. “My parents were very clear about being cognizant of our history and the importance of education as not just a privilege but a responsibility.” At the behest of their father, who valued his upbringing in New Haven, each of the children attended high school on the wooded campus of Northfield Mount Hermon in Western Massachusetts and went on to matriculate in the Ivies: Penn (Mamadou) Barnard (djassi) Brown (Yaya) and Cornell (Djani) Djassi is grateful for her father’s vision. “Aside from the obvious academic intensity and advantage it gave me in applying for and understanding the purpose of college, I really had such a formative experience living away from home…I don’t think I would have ever run track, swam, worked on a farm, or really seen myself as a multi-faceted individual. Boarding school let me grow into my own skin at my own pace and feel free to just be. As an adolescent that was priceless.”

Developing sound minds and bodies, the Johnson siblings excelled both academically and athletically. “We were always encouraged to be physical by nature, taught how fun it was to challenge and stretch the body’s capabilities. We grew up doing gymnastics, capoeira, all of us dance — my brothers are shamefully talented despite their lack of interest in training. I had school and ballet and modern classes all week and was able to ‘study’ the house and break-dance culture on the weekends. There are still guys who call me out when I’m uptown like, Ain’t you ‘Dou’s little sister who won that battle spinning on her head way back in da day?”

A 1970’s anti-nukes rally: “I want to GROW not GLOW.” And grow she did into an awesome command of her body.

Her parents have been on the board of DanceBrazil for most of her life. “Growing up, around and backstage with a dance company was amazing,” she says. Her first stage appearance was at age six: a samba with the company in “Orfeu Negro” at Riverside Church.

Junior high was pivotal. She chose as her Phys Ed elective, the dance class of Melvin Jones. The former Alvin Ailey dancer taught the Horton and Graham techniques. Through his instruction, she was ahead of the curve when she auditioned for and was accepted into the Ailey scholarship program years later.

“After boarding school I was hungry to get back to NYC and dance.” Yet she shunned the academic pursuit of dance. A local school would allow her to both train with Ailey and study English and Anthropology.  “A women’s college seemed empowering to me. With alumnae like Zora, Katherine and Twyla, I knew Barnard would be perfect.” Her nine-page appeal to overturn a denied housing grant was successful and though her parents lived only 23 blocks away, she was awarded housing for four years.

She initially found anthropology “daunting and too focused on the other,” but eventually realized that “there is a future in Anthro for participant-observers such as myself, that the preservation of culture can be enacted by those within rather than some extraneous observer.” This will be the crux of her graduate exploration. “I see ways to give back through my art.”

Among her impressive credits (view them and her performance reel at Dancer’s Pro) is her phenomenal performance in Moses Pendleton’s Passion.  A cornerstone of the MOMIX repertoire, Passion is a highlight of djassi’s eight-year tenure touring internationally with the company.

The mind-blowing Passion ribbon solo.

When djassi joined MOMIX, she and technical director/lighting designer, Corrado Verini, “gravitated to each other during after-show dinner to discuss the world, both yearning to talk about something besides dance,” she says.  On an Amsterdam tour they sparked an intense, see-each-other-on-tour, long-for-each-other-off-tour relationship. “We had cultural, linguistic, generational, not to mention the American/Italian, Black/White dichotomies that we both had to get over somehow.  We weren’t convinced right away that we were ready to deal with all of the work that loving each other might entail.” Nevertheless, “it was undeniable for both of us that there was something that kept bringing us back together.” In a yellow silk dress of her own design, djassi wed Corrado in August 2008 in Rome.

dja love.

“Soho Moods,” Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome.  Photo © Nina Contini Melis.

Apart from dance, she’s tapped into other aspects of her creativity through acting, writing (contributing to the book Transculturalism and TRACE magazine) and fashion.  Frequently complimented on garments she’d whip up, she during a tour break in 2001, created a 32-piece collection dubbed the eponymic dja. She sold the line at fairs in Rio and New York.  Inspired by her love of adornment, she has more recently launched the easier-to-produce earring line, Flights of Fancy by dja.

As Calpurnia in an Italian production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Photo: A.T. Ambrosini

Optical party dress and Flights of Fancy earrings by dja.

As a brisk stroll through nearby Prospect Park rocked Mirahl to sleep, djassi spoke of “spoiling” their winter baby “with Italian summer love at the sea and countryside of Rome.”  Happy for my friends and smitten with their slumbering infant I bade the Johnson-Verini family farewell and buon viaggio.

Il tesoro trovato di djassi:

1. Fame (the 1980 movie.) “My father took me to see it when I was six and I made him sit through it twice. I was like ‘I wanna do THAT!’ I look back on the movie now and realize there were some really adult themes, it wasn’t a movie about dance and fairies. But I was pretty clear that I could be an artist at six years old, so there you go.”

The “Fame” trailer.

2. Aperitivo.  “I have always loved a good glass of wine and 9 years of bartending in New York gave me the opportunity to really understand it.  One of the things I love about Italian ‘time’ as it relates to food is the concept of aperitivo, the precursor to dinner.  In the best bars in Rome and Milan one can go, relax, pay for a glass of wine and feast on the ‘buffet’ offerings.”

“No matter where I am, I rarely have a night without an aperitivo.” Wine photo by Sara Rosso.

3. Languages.  At 28 she lived in Brazil with Yaya and learned Portuguese by immersion. On a tour in Spain, “I got my Spanish better with that guy,” she says gesturing toward Corrado, “He speaks it really well.” After having traveled and toured as an American, she knows that rudimentary English is spoken most everywhere. “So you take it for granted,” she says. “But I find that you get so much more respect by speaking the language and you can really break down so many more barriers by how you speak the language… to take on the culture and the understanding of how people speak the language because of the culture. My sister and I really assimilated into Brazilian life and took on the accent.  A similar thing happened with Italian while living in Italy. I still have a long way to go to perfecting my Português and my Italiano but the ‘way’ I speak fools people and so I learn that much more from each exchange…and the languages are actually very similar. Many words are the same, it’s just ‘sung’ a little differently.”

4. New Year’s Eve in Rio. She’s spent it there a few times with Yaya. “The most meaningful, beautiful, spiritual New Year’s Eves ever!” Once they spent it on the roof of singer Elza Soares‘ Copacabana house, looking down on the glorious sight of the white-clad Carioca multitudes making water offerings to Yemanja. 

Ano Nove: “It’s pretty special. I can’t wait ’til the next one we are able to make.”

5. Dancing With My Family. “You can’t take the six of us anywhere with good music and some space because we all love to partner dance. We are all Salsa-proficient improvisers.  My dad made sure the girls could follow and the boys could lead. Holidays are three couples on the dance floor or a few of us dancing while the others play the congas, bell and berimbau…and my mom can lead a good funga anywhere.”

The Sisters Johnson get their dance on.

6. Hats.  She often tops her look with one of the many chapeaux she’s collected in her travels.

Some faves include Trilbys from Spain, select vintage and a conical spire from Chile.

7. High Heels.  “I looove a good pair of heels, and I love to get good bargains on them. One of my favorite pairs is from El Mundo on 145th and Broadway near where I grew up. They are gorgeous.”

“Don’t they just make you want to Salsa?Carlos by Carlos Santana pumps.

8. Fearlessness. “Without that concept in my life I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done. From thinking I could make a career of dance to traveling the world–something I wanted to do, but do with a purpose to meeting Corrado through work and believing in following my heart.”

Holiday Island, the Maldives.

9. Oasi Naturista di Capocotta. She loves the freedom of the nudist oasis in Rome. “I used to be a bit prudish about my breasts and then I realized I had to shed my Western issues and embrace my origins on this European beach. They have the most amazing restaurant with people eating on silver plates with huge wine glasses in different arrays of nakedness. It’s one of my favorite places to go in the summer.”

Easy atmosphere and the freshest catch.

10. gDiapers. “I just couldn’t fathom that in 2011, I should be complacent,” knowing that conventional disposables degrade in 500 years. “How is that responsibly leaving my child a planet she can thrive on?” An Earth-friendly diaper hybrid, gDiapers feature inserts (either washable cloth or flushable, biodegradable disposables) to absorb waste.  The new gMom has become an ardent brand evangelist: “no rashes, sooo much less waste and the refills break down in 50 days!” With an in-house washer during her Roman sojourn she’ll use the cloth option exclusively.

Good for the baby, good for Gaia (and they appeal to Mommy’s fashion sensibilities.)


30 Responses

  1. what a beautiful family. this is one of those stories where you think “dang i wish they were my brothers and sisters.” very interesting how there is this long tradition of black women coupling anthropology with their artistic interests, whether its hurston with literature or the great pearl primus with dance. its seems like the experiential dimension of anthropology provides a certain freedom where folks seems like it is almost of necessity that they practice and be their chosen art form as opposed to just studying it.

    bravo sharon! the trove is becoming an institution that is surely in need of a larger stage. you really bring readers into the lives of your subjects in a way that validates their humanity and celebrates their uniqueness as beautiful people on the move. keep bangin’:)

    • Thank you as always, Fanon for your astute commentary. And though you consistently show love to The Trove, I knew that this one in particular would resonate with you.

  2. Wow! We grew up in the same building in Harlem, and I would always think, what an amazing family (although the kids were a bit younger so our paths didn’t cross socially)…

    I always thought they were all so beautiful — whenever I would see Djassi I would think, wow, she’s so stunning and regal and look at her style!

    Great to know more about her background, I remember when her Mom opened that school, what an amazing legacy…

    Thanks again, Sharon… I love your treasure Trove!


    • Thank you, Jake-ann. Yes, she is spot-on in describing her family as “ridiculously amazing!”

  3. aaaaaaaawwwww, this makes me so happy. you are both amazing.

    • Thanks Toshi!

  4. Sharon! Sharon! Sharon! The texture of your words and the source of this family put me in every venue of their lives.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Quintell.

  5. That was lovely!

    You are such an amazing writer. So warm and personal.
    Djassi is beautiful and talented. So rounded and inspiring!

    • Thanks Lois!

  6. Love, love, love Djassi. What a wonderful homage to her and her family.

    • Thanks Lea!

  7. Sweet images and lovely spirit in your words.
    Thanks, Toshi for hipping me to yet another luminous soul.

    • Thanks Lizz!

  8. You have introduced me to so many interesting people. I love reading your words Sharon you are truly a gifted and talented writer who has great capacity to uncover the human spirit. Until the next episode. I can’t wait for the book on all these wonderful people you have encountered. Lyn

    • Thanks so much, Lynda!

  9. I’m the old auntie of sorts having known Dja’s mom Orundun since we were both young mothers raising young children. Orundun is truly an accomplished woman in her own right, so it does not surprise me that her daughters – and sons- have turned out to be these amazing individuals.

    It was so nice to see photos of all of the family who I last spent time with when the children were much smaller and us parents much younger. What an incredibly beautiful family and Mirahl is just adorable!

    Again, much credit to Orundun and Awolowo (Carl) for their focus on their children’s education, instilling in them a committment to family, an appreciation for other cultures and the arts, and a social consciousness.

    But this is about Djassi who has become such a phenomenal woman- I am so proud of her accomplishments!

    one love,
    stefanie in atl

    • Thanks for the love from the ATL, Stefanie!

    • So nice to hear from the ‘aunties’ that were a part of our extended family along with their children who were ‘brothers and sisters’ to dja and her siblings.
      Thanks Stephanie. Your sister love, will always be remembered. I’m sure dja will be happy to see your comment. Love to your family, as well.
      Djassi’s Mom

      • Glad you all have been able to connect, Ms. Johnson. xx

  10. Thank you for this great article focusing on an amazing young woman of whom we are all so proud. In addition to all her many talents, she is also a very poised, smart, politically conscious, and genuinely nice person. I, too, am one of her ‘aunties’ and consider it a blessing to know her and her family… and to see her family growing! Love, Shukuru from Richmond, CA

    • Thank you, Shukuru. As djassi is blessed with many aunties, so too is little Mirahl.

  11. I am so proud & blessed to have such a talented, spiritually alive family. I look forward to reading more and more about you & your talented sibs. Your gorgeous daughter has been born into greatness and I know she will carry it on to another level. Congratulations to you all!!!!!!!

    • Thanks, “Cousin Ora,” for commenting.

  12. I am honored to be “Aunty Dy” to the family, our relationship is many layered….beginning with Baba Awolowo meeting my Mother at Union College in Schenectady, then on to Djassi and Mamadou watching rehearsals of “Capoeira Du Amor” with Jelon Vieira’s newly emerging Dance Brazil so very long ago ….The rest is her story- ourstory….I am eagerly awaiting her return to finish those Pilates sessions we started Dja

    Love Aunty Dy

    • Thanks for your comment, “Aunty Dy.”

  13. […] 1995 graduation and camped with friends on Avenue A. While styling a photo shoot she chatted with djassi daCosta johnson who said “I’m going abroad, do you want to interview for my job?” (as personal […]

  14. Well okay. So I saw Djassi first with Yaya in Brooklyn at the train station and I was like “Okay those two ladies are up to something!” They just stood out like “Bam…we belong to us!” The train came and I tried not to stare, and then off to my stop and off to work.

    Learned a few weeks later that we were actually neighbors. There were strange going ons in our building for some time. Yet meeting Djassi and being welcomed into her home and exchanging furniture and life tales, you know looking back….it was a joy.

    Meeting Djassi, Yaya and Mamdou and then running into Mamadou ( the super brother) in NOLA at a random moment just made me think that these people are profoundly connected to the most high. If you know, then you know what I mean.

    I could never put my finger on what Djassi was up to, cause although we were neighbors we were always doing our own thing. Now I understand. She really does has her own thing and is managing her thing very, very well.

    Djassi, I knew you were up to something all along!
    Mashallah Ukhti!

    • Thanks for your comment!

  15. Dear Djassi, this is Thatiana Santos, the Brazilian who you met in NYC at Nia Love’s class. A good friend of mine, Alfred Pearson, who is Mrs.Johnson neighbor, told me that you are living between NY and Rome. I have been living in Rome for two years and after spoke to Al, I found the business card you once gave me. I was wondering if when you are in town, you teach or/and do any workshop. Congratulations for Mirahl and for the beautiful family you have. The pictures that you posted are amazing!!! Best wishes,
    Thatiana S.

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