Ivy Leaf - Winter 2013

Ride of a Lifetime

By Shari R. Routch; Photos by Marissa Carney


When Josh Johnson laced up his tap shoes and stepped onto the New York City subway to perform for the first time, he had no idea where that train ride would eventually take him.

A freshman at Penn State Altoona, Johnson was simply looking for a way to earn money to pay his tuition bill. Now a junior, Johnson’s inaugural ride has turned into the ticket to not only paying the bills, but to the ride of a lifetime.

If you asked high school freshman Johnson if he could see himself tap dancing to raise money as a college freshman, he likely would have laughed. An avid basketball player, Johnson had never even laced up a tap shoe, let alone thought much of the art. But, when his New York City high school became a performing arts school, all students were forced to participate in some form of the arts. Johnson, along with some of his basketball teammates and a few other “really horrible kids,” simply refused. The rebels were put together in a room for about an hour each day and, to do something to keep them out of trouble, the school hired a tap dancer to come in.

“Everyone thought they were crazy; that’s the answer to our problem?” says Johnson. “But this guy came in, and we were kind of laughing at him, but when he started doing his thing, we were like ‘wow, do it again.’” Getting on their level, the tapper engaged Johnson and some of the others. “It was the funniest thing; we looked around at each other and asked ‘how did we end up tapping?’ But that’s how I got started.”

When Johnson got accepted to Penn State, he knew that he was going; how to pay for it didn’t initially cross his mind. “I was really excited to go to college; I thought, ‘I am going and I didn’t care how I am going to pay for it,’” states Johnson, a first-generation college student. “It didn’t really sink in until almost the end of the summer that I didn’t have the money to go to Penn State.”

Johnson got through the Penn State Altoona door thanks to the woman running the “College for Every Student” program at his high school. He called her two days before freshman move-in and told her he was $2,000 short and that he didn’t think he could go to college this year. “She wrote a check for the $2,000 out of her own pocket,” remarks Johnson. “But I knew that was a one-time thing. So I had to figure it out.”

After trying to balance minimum wage jobs in Altoona with his studies, Johnson knew he could never make enough money to cover his bills. So, with a mix of ingenuity and talent, Johnson began tapping for tuition.

“New York City is kind of like a platform for performing artists. You can always find some kind of street performer, playing the violin or bongos, or a whole band, trying to make money off their talent,” notes Johnson. So, each Friday, Johnson would board the bus to New York and head to the subway to spend his weekend tapping. His mother, who at the time was homeless and now lives in transitional housing, was unable to house Johnson, so he relied on the kindness of friends who let him crash on their couches for the few weekend hours that he wasn’t tapping.

“It was like a full-time job,” says Johnson. “It was exhausting, and it was killing my knees. There’s only a certain type of surface you’re supposed to tap on, and it’s not a subway floor. I remember one time I had a huge pain in my left knee, because I would always do this one move that got me an extra dollar; I sacrificed my knee because I had to make that money.” The exhaustion was both mental and physical, but Johnson’s purpose kept him going. “I had to tell myself, Josh, if you stop now, you’re not going to have money for this and that. So you either keep going or give up. I had to beat the odds in my head and talk myself through the pain.”

The reactions from the subway passengers were varied, but overall were positive. “Most people really enjoyed the fact that I was raising money for school,” recalls Johnson. “Some people questioned it, so I started to walk around with a syllabus, and my college ID.” An average weekend included tapping late Friday evening upon arrival to the city, and about eight to ten hours on Saturday, and more on Sunday before returning to Altoona. A typical yield would net Johnson about $400 per weekend.

Johnson fully expected to continue to support himself this way, at least for the foreseeable future—until one day in early 2012, when a New York Times reporter happened onto the train in which Johnson was performing. Believing Johnson’s would be an amazing story to write, he interviewed him, and the story ran on the Monday of spring break 2012, Johnson’s sophomore year.

After the article ran, Johnson was afraid to pick up his phone. “It wouldn’t stop ringing,” he recalls. From that point on, his life took an incredible turn, leading him next to an interview with Diane Sawyer, and then onto The Ellen DeGeneres Show. After performing on DeGeneres’s program, viewers wrote into the show, asking to bring him back, which she did. “It was so great. My whole mindset when doing the Ellen show was to make people love me,” says Johnson. “So when they brought me back, I was like, yes! I did it!”

Next, Degeneres sent Johnson to serve as a red carpet host for the Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards. Then he did a number of radio shows, Japanese TV, and a small film with Dule Hill called Nostalgia. His appearance on DeGeneres’s show sparked interest from Euro RSCG Worldwide, a PR agency that provided Johnson with an internship for the summer of 2012, as well as from Chegg, an online textbook rental company, that awarded him a $35,000 scholarship for college. But perhaps the crowning moment of Johnson’s meteoric rise to stardom was his appearance on Dancing With the Stars in October 2012. He was the featured tapper in a production that included—as his own back-up dancers—professionals who had performed in music videos for Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

But Johnson is quick to note, “This wasn’t my goal. I just wanted to make money for tuition. Everything that has happened is really cool though, because I was really, really struggling. I remember tap dancing on Thanksgiving and Christmas, trying to see if I could make an extra dollar because it was the holiday season. Everyone else was at home, eating or whatever, but I didn’t mind because I just wanted to make money and meet my goal.”

Graduating from college has remained Johnson’s primary quest, and he has had to adjust his schedule to accomodate traveling for performances and interviews while maintaining his academics. Recognizing the turn his life was taking, he scheduled his fall classes for late Mondays through early Thursday so that, wherever he has to fly to and from, he has Friday through Sunday open. “And, my professors have been understanding. I appreciate them very, very much,” he notes.

“I was never gifted in the whole academic area,” Johnson recognizes. “I was never the smartest kid, never the ‘A’ student.” He admits that college has been a struggle; although he took four classes in the fall semester, for him, it is more like taking seven, as he attends multiple sections of the same course. For example, he has an 8 a.m. class that also is scheduled for 10:30 a.m., “so I go to both. I go to the first class and take down the notes and then go to the second to reinforce the information. I also want to let the professors know that, even though I am doing all of this extra traveling, I really do care.”

Not finishing college is simply not an option, regardless of other opportunities out there in the performance arena. Part of that reason is his desire to set an example for his younger brother, still back home in New York City, as well as others. “There are people watching me now, and looking up to me. I know that if I can at least graduate from college, my brother can graduate from high school. But I can’t really say that until I graduate.”

“I am a first generation college student, so it means a lot to me,” says Johnson. “No one really set that example for me, so I have to be the first one to start that trend in our family.” Johnson recalls an interview where someone stated that he must love school because he is working so hard at it. Quite the contrary. “I hate school with a passion,” Johnson states with a smile. “But I still know the value of an education. I know that it opens doors. I know that it means a lot more than just a degree on a sheet of paper, whether you go to Penn State, a community college, or somewhere else.”

When he graduates in 2014 with a degree in communications, one thing Johnson knows for sure is that he wants to keep on tapping, and performing. He states with confidence and assuredness that his post-graduate goals are to host an awards ceremony like the Grammies, and to perform for the 2016 Rio Olympics. To hear anyone else say that, one might scoff, but when one thinks about all that has happened in the course of 2012 for Johnson—from tapping on the subway to performing on national TV—it seems quite possible.

For Johnson, if he can imagine it, he believes it can happen. He states that he lives and dies by one quote: “I am not afraid to die on a treadmill.” To Johnson, that means that “if you and I get on a treadmill together and we both press start, there’s only two end results: either I will die on this treadmill trying to win or you’re getting off first. I take that philosophy and apply it to everything. Things have to work, no matter what the barriers or how high you have to climb. If you stop trying, then you’re not living anymore.”