A Rising Star’s Journey into Performing and Fine Arts
By Jennifer Kennedy
Aspiring professional dancer Josephine Henderson’s artistic passion can be traced back to one terrifying but pivotal moment 12 years ago. Her mother, Erin, signed her up for Oak Hall School’s talent show. The kindergartner had never taken a dance class, but her piano teacher offered to choreograph a jazz routine.
She walked on stage wearing a gray sweater, black leggings and silver sparkly shoes. Full of self-doubt, she wanted to hide behind her fedora. Henderson remembers the bright light shining on her face and the silence of the crowd. When the music started, she was transformed.
“I was beaming, I loved it. It felt so right to be onstage,” she said. “I felt my personality shine with a smile I didn’t have to force. I immediately knew I wanted to start dance classes.”
The high school senior has been performing ever since. As an elementary school student, she participated in Oak Hall School’s drama productions and began to dance at Cameron Dancenter. Henderson is trained in ballet, jazz, tap, modern and contemporary dance.
“Dancing is completely different from everyday life. Being onstage is a breath of fresh air. The mixture of feeling nervous but excited to present yourself is truly out of this world,” said Henderson. “I let the music take me away and let my body do what it’s supposed to be doing.”
Her 12-year career with the Gainesville studio culminates this year with a final jazz performance in their spring concert and “State of Wonder” show in April.
Artistic Director Jeri-Lynn Rapczak feels her curiosity, sensitivity and passion are what make her a beautiful artist.
“Josephine is so giving every time she takes the dance floor and moves others in the way she connects to her characters,” Rapczak said. “She is inspiring to be around and a student that has helped me grow as a teacher.”
In December, the 18-year-old performed the iconic role of fairy godmother in Danscompany of Gainesville’s, the resident dance company of Cameron Dancenter, annual production of “Cinderella.” Danscompany has delighted audiences at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts with this classic fairytale ballet for 31 years. It is a tradition for younger students to work their way up with supporting parts. Senior dancers perform the coveted lead roles. The months before the show include classes three times per week plus long rehearsals. There were some weekend days leading up to the show when she was in the studio practicing for twelve hours.
For Henderson, the opportunity to perform her favorite tale during the holiday season was surreal. She recalls seeing the magic she felt watching as a child; mesmerized by the captivating music and the enchanting carriage pulled by unicorns. The lead dancers brought the story to life and immediately became her heroes. Years later, performing the dances brought back the same wonder and emotions.
“I had never seen something so elegant before. When I watched the fairy godmother’s wand illuminate, I was convinced that magic is real,” she said. “As a child, a princess story is a dream. To dance this incredible role was a dream come true.”
While the closing night of any show is bittersweet, this one drew deeper feelings. After growing up at the studio, the chapter of her life at Cameron Dancenter and Danscompany is coming to a close. In “Cinderella,” Henderson was the last person on stage after the final act.
“I have never felt so emotional watching the curtain close. Dancing with my closest friends, feeling all the energy and having it end is beyond words,” she said. “You get an attachment to your role, and you’ll never get to perform it in the same way or live in that moment again.”
Henderson credits Nina Cameron as her greatest artistic influence. The Cameron Dance Studio founder, who died two years ago, taught her to dance from the heart.
“Nina was filled with so much passion and creativity. She made me want to be the best version of myself and helped me get there,” she said. “Nina believed in you when you didn’t have the confidence in yourself.”
The confidence she developed from dance has led the Gainesville native to recently pursue new interests. In December, she traveled with the All-American Cheerleading team to perform in London’s New Year’s Day Parade with 15 million viewers.
Last year, Henderson established a nonprofit designed to use recycled material to create three-dimensional art in schools. The goal of “For the Love of Plastic” is to reduce waste while encouraging children to express themselves through visual arts, another passion of hers.
Oak Hall School, where she has attended since prekindergarten, has also offered artistic support. Encouraged by her elementary school art teacher Mrs. Cooper, she was drawn to painting, drawing and sketching, often staying after school. She feels the school’s personalized attention and dedication to the arts fosters creative talents.
Her sophomore year Henderson entered Oak Hall School’s Arts Conservatory Program (ACP), which allows students to pursue advanced studies in a variety of arts disciplines. The signature program is designed to enhance problem-solving skills, global and cultural awareness, and critical thinking skills through intensive study. Upon graduation, students earn a special designation on their diplomas.
“Oak Hall has really pushed me as an artist,” she said. “The ACP helps develop a more mature outlook and has allowed me to explore the meaning and purpose behind my artwork.”
For someone with dyslexia, Henderson found that the visual arts were a life changing way to express herself. Through her ACP studies, she learned why she wants to create art, who she is creating for and want she wants to present. Last year, her painting was chosen as a finalist in the Spurrier’s Gridiron Grille Fill the Frame One School Art Contest.
Gainesville artist Lori Parent is grateful for the opportunity to watch her grow as a dancer and an artist over the past 10 years.
“The light that beams out of Josephine is absolutely phenomenal. It’s very interesting to know someone’s beautiful, bright soul on the inside and then see it shoot out of them when they’re doing what they love,” Parent said. “There is a reason certain people stand out and it is not always one we can describe. Josephine embodies all those qualities that captivate attention on and off the stage.”
Henderson discovered that there is no limit to what she can do with visual arts. It has been therapeutic to put headphones on, relax and dictate what she wants to happen.
“I can’t control the world or the people around me, but I can control what my art looks like and how I want it to feel,” she said. “I can put so much emotion into something without words. I can make something look alive when it is actually really still. I can make things look real or make them look abstract.”
She loves creating gifts for her family, especially her grandparents who have been her greatest supporters. A favorite piece is an acrylic painting of a rose for her mother, whom she calls the “smartest, most incredible and inspiring person I know.”
Henderson credits her mom’s push to participate in that talent show as the reason she discovered her passion. Erin Henderson says she is in awe of her daughter all the time.
“She had a singular goal for 10 years and made choices every day to reach that goal. She never faltered, never stopped striving,” her mother said. “I am not sure there are words to describe my overflowing pride in her accomplishments. She is a creative to her core and has a deep love of science which is such a great combination.”
The talented artist will double major in dance and molecular biology at Southern Methodist University next year and hopes to dance professionally.
When she gets nervous and tries to be flawless, the soon-to-be high school graduate thinks back to how scared she was to step on stage before that first talent show. Her pre-performance ritual includes a prayer to help calm and center herself.
“I forgive myself for being human. I am not going to be perfect,” she said. “I remind myself that all I can do is my best – and my best is what’s good enough.”
Henderson enjoys encouraging younger students to try dance or art classes. Her advice to them is to simply “take the first step.”
“The reason I am where I am today is because I took that first step onto the talent show stage, then into a dance studio, then into auditions,” she said. “That first step may be daunting, but it can lead you to discover the very best things in your life.”
Cover photo courtesy of Bruce Lynn McCarty Photography
Story photos courtesy of Riley Blair Photography