Jenna Johnson: Dances On Her Terms
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
It’s hard to believe that Jenna Johnson has been on our TV screens consistently since the summer of 2013 when she was a Top 8 finalist on So You Think You Can Dance. After touring with the show, she joined the troupe on Dancing With the Stars in the spring of 2014 and became a pro in Season 23 where she was paired with Jake T. Austin.
But things are changing in a big way — a great way — in Jenna’s world. She opted out of Season 24 of DWTS to open the door to new opportunities in her professional and personal life.
She’s sharing her wisdom and perspective with her fans because she’s found a wonderful way to live authentically in Hollywood and the public eye. Dance Dish chatted with Jenna about her career, those social media haters and her mentor, Mandy Moore.
Let’s get real with Jenna.
Dance Dish: What was it like auditioning for SYTYCD when both of your sisters, Stacy and Jillian, had gotten so close to making it into the Top 20 in prior seasons?
Jenna Johnson: They both made it to the Green Mile [the final stage of the competition before the Top 20 are announced], but both of them got eliminated. I had extreme pressure because I wanted to make them proud. They both had been my teachers growing up. I had so much respect and love for them. When I did make it, my family was the first people I called and they were the first ones in the audience my first episode as well. It was an awesome moment for all three of us.
DD: What was your experience like on the show?
Jenna: I think Season 10 was beautiful. We had some of the most amazing dancers individually. I think it wasn’t a competitive season, which is crazy to think. We became a family. It didn’t feel like we were competing against each other every week. We wanted to see each other do well, thrive and succeed.
My overall experience personally… oh man, I was a mess. [She laughs] I remember working with Mandy Moore during Top 10 week with Neil Haskell. She has been one of my mentors since I was eight years old. I walked in and she pushed me into a corner.
She said, “Jenna, I have no idea what you are doing, but you are not this type of dancer. Figure it out.”
That’s how we started our rehearsal, but it was true. Being so young and getting onto the show, you feel so much pressure to prove yourself. It’s such a weird environment because you are with choreographers you know, but you have this added pressure of wanting America to fall in love with you.
So I think I got into my head for the first few weeks of it and I am so grateful for Mandy’s pep talk. Once we started dancing with the All-Stars, that’s when I had my breakout dances: “I Can’t Make You Love Me” with Neil and my Mark Kanemura ponytail dance.
There was a definite shift halfway through, but it was a bittersweet experience. I was not the dancer that I am or was the first few weeks. Thank goodness for mentors and teachers because the rest of the season was amazing.
DD: What was the Season 13 experience like for you as an All-Star?
Jenna: It was like summer camp. It was awesome! There was something special about Jake Monreal. I saw it from the day he walked into Academy week. His passion for dance and life was untouchable. He became someone so special to me, I am grateful for that experience.
It was at a time in my life when I needed that and he was such a bright little light. He was the biggest gentleman. He would open all of my doors for me; ask if I needed water in the middle of rehearsal — my little heartbreaker.
The reason why I picked him was because I saw myself in him. Jake was not as technically as talented as some of the other contestants and growing up, I was the same way. I was never naturally gifted; I had horrible knees and really bad feet. But I knew I loved it so much that my passion surpassed the other dancers and that’s what I saw in Jake. He has so much love and appreciation for his sport.
DD: What does your relationship with your mentor Mandy Moore mean to you?
Jenna: She means the world to me. Without a doubt, I would not be the dancer I am today without her. She has sculpted me from a young age. She has put so much love, thought and appreciation my way.
She did one of my first solos and I was horrible, but we’ve been together ever since. I wouldn’t have had the experience that I did on SYTCYD or DWTS without her.
On DWTS, she’s shown me how to be a choreographer, how to be an artist and how to be a director. The way she sees movement and camera work as well as timings and transitions are like no one else I’ve ever met. I feel lucky and blessed to call her a mentor. She’s so honest and personal with me, but I appreciate it. I get emotional even talking about her. I aspire to be her when I grow up.
DD: Can you explain what your role was behind the scenes with assisting Mandy on DWTS?
Jenna: I would come in with Artem [Chigvintsev] and Mandy would oversee the whole piece. She would know exact timings, counts, transitions and where things were going to take us. She would have a vision and say, “I want to see a spin right here and then I want a swoop across the stage.” We would help fill in the blanks with ballroom content, but she would do the rest.
She now has her vocabulary of ballroom because she has so many seasons of DWTS under her belt. She’s amazing!
DD: Was it your choice not to return this season?
Jenna: It was 100% my choice not to come back. It was the situation where they didn’t have a celeb for me and they wanted me to do troupe. It was one of the hardest and scariest decisions for me because I’ve never had the opportunity to say no. I’m still under contract and I am a part of the DWTS family, but I’ve spent ages 18 to almost 23 doing that show. It’s been the most beautiful and incredible experience, but I haven’t experienced everything that I would like to.
I’m interested in acting and I would like to one day do Broadway or musicals. I grew up singing as well. I’ve never been to an audition before and I got my first headshots this week. I thought it was time to try it and see if I like it.
DD: What was it like being a pro for the first time in Season 23?
Jenna: From one Jake to the next! [Jake Monreal on SYTYCD to Jake T. Austin on DWTS] It was awesome, but incredibly stressful for my first season because I felt the pressure. I had seen it all happen so many times, I knew what to expect.
Of course, I was so bummed we were out first, but I know everything happens for a reason. If I wasn’t out first, I wouldn’t have had a chance to do all of the specialty numbers and I wouldn’t have been able to fill in for Sharna [Burgess] and have that experience with James [Hinchcliffe]. It was one of my favorite seasons for sure.
DD: When did you start focusing on making your health a priority?
Jenna: This past year and a half I went through a lot of transitions. It was about time I started focusing on myself and what I was doing with my life. I was grateful and happy in my life, but I knew I was lacking in the love of myself.
I went through a huge body transition after a medical scare. I went home after summer tour and decided to restart my life and refocus on what matters most. From that day on, I made a vow to myself that I’m going to change and be the best me. That’s when I started getting healthy and I lost a ton of weight. I was balancing my life mentally, physically and emotionally.
I was also observing my life and the past two and a half, three years that I have been stuck trying to fit in with the rest of Hollywood and I wasn’t happy. I want to be an outlet that people can relate to.
DD: How have handled some of the negativity on social media that has been directed at you and other women on the show?
Jenna: My favorite buttons are report and block. It comes with being associated with certain people on the show and they have these fandoms, specifically the men on the show, It amazes me that they feel the need to comment on somebody else’s life that they have no idea about or have never met personally.
One of the things that ruined me for a few years before I found myself is that I would see accounts where the title is “Jenna is fat” or “Jenna is an ugly pig.” I had multiple accounts that were bullying me. They would post the most horrendous things.
I couldn’t wrap my head around someone who I had never met wants to say this about me. Now it doesn’t faze me one bit. It kind of makes me giggle. How sad and miserable are their lives that they need to comment about me to feel better about their life? Realize that people you are writing about are human and have feelings.
DD: Why did you start your blog?
Jenna: I just want to be real and open and vulnerable to people because that’s how I feel fulfilled. It’s not how many likes I get or what my outfit looks like. I feel best when I am honest and open with people and they’re able to relate and share personal experiences with me that I’m able to get them through. That was the initial reason I wanted to start this blog, but it’s been the most beautiful and therapeutic experience for me. It makes me feel united and empowered with people.
Everyone is trying to blend in and fit in with each other. As scary as it is to be vulnerable and express personal feelings, it’s me. It makes me happy. I am happier now than I’ve ever been because I’m not trying to fit these criteria of what it is to be a professional dancer in Hollywood.
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