Alyssa Edwards is idolized by people around the world. She is stunning and fierce and funny, and she’s Mesquite’s own Justin Johnson.
When Johnson isn’t his drag queen persona, Edwards, he's a dance studio owner whose desire to be the best and teach the best translates to his young dancers.
He calls owning, operating and teaching at Beyond Belief Dance his first love.
“The studio is really kind of the foundation of my fantasy,” he says. “As much as I love to travel and be on stage and perform, I knew at a very young age that I wanted to a be choreographer and a director. I knew I wanted to be the Steven Spielberg of dance. I wanted to create the sets, the ideas, the moves; I wanted to tell stories through movement, costumes, hair and make-up, so I make time to be there. It gets difficult, but whenever I’m at home, I’m never home. I’m always at the studio.”
And on one rare afternoon when he isn’t on the road, headed for an appearance, that’s exactly where we find him, teaching a junior company class. His over-the-top make-up and wigs are traded for gym shorts and a tank that reads, “YAAAS.”
The students at the 3 p.m. class are headed to competition in February, and Johnson is helping to polish each dancer's movement in the routine that he and fellow drag queen Lagania Estranja choreographed.
The 8- to 12-year-olds in the junior company are physically toned and eerily quiet. They go through the movements and nod their heads in understanding when Johnson tells them to pretend they are performing for a million people. They work like an army to move around the props for their routine. One prop is a giant, zebra-print high heel; another is a playhouse facade.
Johnson is a hands-on and motivational teacher. Sometimes he’ll position a dancer in the right place to show them how to correctly do something. Other times, he’ll rely on a pep talk.
He explains the choreography to the group of girls. He wants it to symbolize someone on the outside looking in.
“The movements should be robotic," he says. "She’s the outsider, but really she’s looking at y’all like y’all are the crazy ones,” he says, explaining the choreography. “This is a story about fighting to fit in. When y’all take off the red outfits and everyone is wearing black, it will show that everyone is the same underneath. You have to fight the train tracks to be your own.”
Johnson pauses and realizes what he just said to a room full of elementary-aged dancers. “I know y’all are young, but you get it," he says, laughing.
The dance is more than just a dance. Johnson wants the dancers to use their movements, the props and their faces to tell a story — one quite similar to the persona of a drag queen.
However, the girls remain quiet. Finally, Johnson asks them if they are tense because he’s there. While he tries to be in the studio about three times a week, it’s the first time in a while he’s been there on a Sunday for company practices.
He goes around the room and asks some of the girls individually if they are tense because of his presence. They are bashful and it’s obvious they are hesitant to answer truthfully until one answers, “Yes, sir.” The room breaks and erupts with laughter.
Johnson understands why they would be nervous. As the owner of the studio and a self-proclaimed perfectionist, he says winning these dance competitions is important to him. But through the years, he’s become less critical of himself and the dancers he works with.
But it’s still in him.
“This is my world. It brings me so much joy,” he says to the dancers. “But I want it to be full-out. If I put on a T-shirt that says ‘YAAAS,’ I want to mean it.”
After one hour with the junior company, the teen company takes over for their practice. There are three girls who overlap in both the companies, but it’s instantly an entirely new bunch. They are older, chattier and more comfortable around Johnson. One dancer, an 11th-grader, has been with Johnson since she was in kindergarten. He still gets respect from the group, but they don't seem to fear him quite as much as the younger girls do.
The 10 dancers go through three to four routines they will perform in competitions. Johnson watches them, critiquing each move and dancer along the way. After a few run-throughs, he instructs the girls to practice on their own so he can sit and talk with me.
Even when we’re chatting, he has one eye on the dancers. Just when he seems to be focused on our conversation, he stops mid-sentence to tell a dancer to fix her feet. Then he’s back with me.
“I used to focus so much on winning. I used to be such a perfectionist. A few years ago, you would never see me sitting down like this. Now I listen and learn.”
Drag began as a way for Johnson to perform, he says. “It was never about being a woman or anything like that. I just wanted to perform. And then to be able to create a character? Yes! I wanted to be Alyssa Milano or Tiffani Amber Thiessen from Saved by the Bell.”
Even though he was raised in an all-American home, as he describes it (“Boys are blue and girls are pink”), he pursued drag as Alyssa Edwards. “Drag was like Alice in Wonderland, where she fell into the hole and her world changed. I fell into a gay bar and my entire world changed.”
Edwards was named Miss Gay America 2010 and then was later dethroned for having business dealings that conflicted with the Miss Gay America organization. After that, Edwards competed on the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Right now, she's on air in the "All Stars" season of Drag Race and traveling around the world performing, which limits her involvement with the dance studio.
Before his fame as Alyssa, Johnson says he had a hand in every aspect of the studio. Now, he acts more like a principal. And when the principal is in the classroom, the dancers don't want to screw up.
One recent night in Dallas, Johnson hosted a viewing party of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Star season at Cedar Springs Tap House. As Johnson watched his drag queen persona on screen and gave commentary to the bar crowd, he frequently put his head down sheepishly.
Even though Johnson says he has come out of his shell since he was a boy growing up in Mesquite, he's calmer than you might guess. One-on-one, he speaks softly and slowly. He thinks carefully about his words. When he talks about his ex-boyfriend and his abusive father, he never gets angry or abrasive. He's surprised when it's suggested that he might have resentment toward those men.
If Johnson didn’t have a supportive family growing up, he says he has one now: his students and their parents. The mothers sitting in the lobby laugh with a “Who’s that?” when I tell them I’m looking for Justin Johnson. And when Johnson wants feedback on choreography, he allows the mothers and the junior company to come in and watch.
As the juniors are filing out after observing the older girls, Johnson asks one of them to relay to me what she did the other night.
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“We dressed J.J. up as Alyssa Edwards,” the 5-year-old tells me. Johnson laughs and later tells me that’s one of the few times his drag queen persona has been brought up at the dance studio. It's something everybody is aware of, but the focus is on the dancers.
“Occasionally, we’ll have fans show up at the studio. We usually just tell them to leave,” he says.
The teen company had left momentarily to watch a YouTube dance on the computer in the other room. When they return, the girls announce they have choreographed an impromptu dance to show Johnson. The girls perform a few eight-counts for Johnson. Moments later, their moms are in the studio learning the routine. Johnson is hysterical. Laughing and shouting, Johnson pulls out his phone to Snapchat the entire thing.
Johnson may have found a path to fame, but it's clear he meant it when he said Beyond Belief Dance Studio is his first love.