Originally published Jan. 27, 2014.
The man behind the snazzy dance moves of the Huntington North High School Varsity Singers says the kids making up the group have one of the best chances to take home some wins when show choir competition begins next month.
But it's Jason Johnson the Varsity Singers look to for their competitive edge when they meet with him twice per week in rehearsals.
Johnson, 42, a native of Fort Wayne and resident of Indianapolis, makes his living as a show choir choreographer. He is constantly on the road, traveling to coach 18 groups located in South Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio and the length and width of Indiana.
The Carroll High School graduate performed in his school's show choir, prompting him to earn a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Ball State University with an eye toward teaching choir. He did his student teaching at HNHS under choir teacher John Wenning.
"My senior year I started choreographing for my high school show choir and it was kind of a landslide," Johnson remembers. "Carroll's show choir has always been one of the top show choirs in the state, and so I started choreographing for them."
In the fall of 1994 Wenning called Johnson to see if he'd help out the Varsity Singers. Johnson has been choreographing the group's award-winning moves ever since.
Along the way, Johnson traded in teaching to perform professionally 15 years, mainly on cruise ships, at theme parks and dinner theaters. His credits include two national Broadway tours of "Fosse" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie." But his love of high school show choirs brought him back to full-time choreography.
Johnson says one of the most important things he teaches his show choir students is self confidence. Since most of the kids don't have big-city opportunities to study formal dance, he seeks to bring them up to speed.
"The first rehearsal that I have with them every year is, I'm sure, very scary for them. They don't know their right foot from their left foot at that point. I'm trying to teach them pretty elaborate and intensive dance moves, and the terminology that they would learn in a legitimate dance class," he says. "I need to give them the confidence to believe in themselves so that they can sell it and perform and come alive on stage. And hopefully along the way, they learn to love the process and they learn what it takes to be a success in life. This goes so much beyond just show choir."
But not to worry - Johnson says the Varsity Singers are known all over the country for their talent, excellent showmanship and outstanding work ethic. While other schools only concentrate on their competition, the Varsity Singers learn a two-hour dinner show in addition to their show choir presentation.
"John Wenning built a very solid program there," Johnson says. "And I've known (present choir director) Dan Baker since he went to Carroll High School and I choreographed for him."
Baker also went to college with Johnson and they performed together at Busch Gardens.
"For me, personally, it's just a comfort to know that he is of high caliber and we're so fortunate to have him here working with the kids and showing them an elite and advanced style of choreography and dance that they wouldn't have received otherwise," Baker says. "The Varsity Singers, as of right now, wouldn't be able to function without him, he's such a vital and integral part of what they do as a show choir."
Johnson's salary largely comes from parent booster fund-raisers such as the Pomp and Plenty dinner concert and the Midwest Showcase, coming up on Feb. 22 at Huntington North. Only about 10 percent of his fees are paid by the school system itself, according to Baker.
Even though he choreographs and coaches the Varsity Singers in the fine points of hoofing it on stage, Johnson credits the singers themselves with having what it takes to be top-notch among the Midwest's show choirs. In spite of having missed a week or more of school due to wintry weather, the team has found time to rehearse together in an off-site location during school closures, while other students are enjoying their day off.
Senior Cortney Gates has been in the Varsity Singers four years and says Johnson makes their rehearsals fun.
"It's nice being able to work with a professional, just seeing how we're supposed to dance," she says. "It's encouraging to know that we have someone who cares about us enough to help us out."
Rhett Long, junior, plans to go to Ball State University and join the singers there after he graduates from HNHS. He says Johnson's example of a good work ethic, level-headedness and hard work has been an inspiration to him.
"He has very high expectations, and I intend to fulfill them every week, for every time he comes," Long says.
"I've basically learned from him that if you work hard and you keep your expectations where they are then you will succeed and you become good and know what you're doing at all times."
The Varsity Singers perform their first competition on Saturday, Feb. 15 at Northridge High School in Middlebury. On Saturday, Feb. 22 they will host the Midwest Showcase competition at Huntington North High School. Performances begin at 8 a.m. Twenty-three groups will compete and the Varsity Singers will perform approximately between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the door.
The Varsity Singers will compete on four more dates: March 1, March 8, March 15 and March 22.
Complete caption: Members of the Huntington North High School Varsity Singers listen intently as Choreographer Jason Johnson (far right) explains proper dance technique on a number for the upcoming show choir competition season. The first competition is set for Feb. 15. The following week a competition will be hosted at HNHS.