Ronny Johansson was one of the most internationally renowned Swedish dance performers of her time and occupies a central place in the early history of modern dance. Her tireless work as a dance artist, teacher, and popular educator was very important to the growth and development of dance.
Ronny Johansson was born in Riga in 1891. Her father was a Swedish businessman who worked in shipping and her mother was from Great Britain, albeit of Scottish ancestry. Ronny Johansson attended a Russian school, and spent the year of 1908 in Sweden in order to learn Swedish. She and her family returned to Sweden for good in 1912. She was well-educated, and – as befitting a child of the upper middle class – she had learned several languages and been given both dance and music lessons. In Stockholm she began to study dance with Olga Raphael-Linden, who offered the most advanced form of modern dance training available at that time in Sweden. In order to continue her training she, like many other women, had to go abroad to find this. She went to Dresden to study with Heinrich Kröller, who was the lead dancer at the Dresden opera. Kröller was an innovator and became the first person to devise choreographed pieces for Ronny Johansson.
Ronny Johansson's debut occurred in the middle of the First World War, in 1916 at Wiesbaden. Her Swedish debut followed shortly afterwards at Musikaliska akademin in Stockholm. She generated very positive response and her dancing talents were admired wherever she performed. She toured throughout Sweden and large areas of central Europe. She was a much-loved artist and was very favourably received no matter where she appeared, whether in Sundsvall, New York or Düsseldorf. According to the press she was immeasurably popular and her performances were always sold-out. Within the space of a few months she visited nearly twenty different places within the country.
With most of Europe ahead of her Ronny Johansson made a much-noted departure from Sweden in 1925 and headed across the Atlantic to the USA for the first time. Over the years she made many visits to America. On her first trip she was invited to Los Angeles and the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, amongst other places. The school, led by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, was famous, and one where both future dancers and choreographers as well as film actors trained. Several of these people – who later established their own schools – met Ronny Johansson and claim to have been very influenced by her methodology. Early on she also met Margaret H’Doubler, who established dance as a scientific discipline by introducing modern dance as a subject at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That was the first American university – and probably the first throughout the Western world – to offer a degree in the subject of dance in 1926. Universities became important places for women and Ronny Johansson gave lectures at many of them across America.
In addition to teaching at various schools Ronny Johansson also performed as a solo dancer in her own choreographed pieces. The leader of the Institute of Arts and Science at Columbia University described Ronny Johansson as “a well-rounded female artist – she is more than just that – she is an unfettered personality”.
John Martin, critic with The New York Times, and at that time the most important mouthpiece of modern dance, wrote in 1928: “Ronny Johansson made her first appearance in more than a year in a dance recital last night at the McMillin Theatre of Columbia University … She is possessed of freshness of movement and excellence of pantomime”.
The financial crash of 1929 led to a setback, however, and Ronny Johansson returned to Sweden. During the 1930s she threw herself into the social campaign for popular education. She opened dance schools, she travelled throughout Sweden giving talks on body culture and dance, and on women’s freedom (through dance), and emphasised the importance of physical health. Given that pedagogy was a significant aspect she highlighted teachers’ abilities. Intending, at least partly, to legitimise professional dance-teaching, and partly to protect the field she instigated the establishment of Svenska Danspedagogförbundet (the Swedish dance-teachers’ association). It was set up in 1939 and she served as its first secretary. Her international networks and languages – she had mastered five languages – allowed the association to attract internationally well-known teachers to Sweden to provide training and skills development.
In 1942 Ronny Johansson became linked to the Dramaten (royal dramatic theatre) school as a teacher of stage movement, rhythmics and stylised dancing. She had this position until 1966. Thanks to Ingmar Bergman she was awarded a state-funded artists’ salary in 1977. Towards the end of her life she cared for her severely sight-damaged sister.
Ronny Johansson died in Stockholm in 1979.