The Evolution of 'Dancing With the Stars' Pro Jenna Johnson

Kristyn Burtt

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Photo credit: ABC/Kelsey McNeal.

Anyone watching season 29 of "Dancing With the Stars" saw a different person in pro Jenna Johnson. There was an underlying confidence and quality about her work that went to the next level this fall. Of course, it doesn't hurt that she had an incredible partner in "Catfish" host Nev Schulman, but it was evident this evolution happened beyond the ballroom floor.

Fans weren't the only ones to take note of the transformation, her fellow pros chimed in about her work at the end of the season. Sister-in-law Peta Murgatroyd shared a photo of Johnson and husband Val Chmerkovskiy hugging after her second-place finish on the finale on Instagram. Murgatroyd noted, "I really saw Jenna dance this season, full out, not holding back, projecting love, feeling every step, with so much joy in her heart."

That joy was also seen by Chmerkovskiy, who also praised his wife on Instagram for "stepping into your own lane in your own shoes." He called her a "starlet" who is "finally" get[ting] the recognition" she deserves. That's high praise from her co-workers and family members, who know her journey has been successful, but never easy.

Longtime fans watched Johnson kicked off her dance career on season 10 of "So You Think You Can Dance." Choreographers and judges were often singing her praise during her run on the show, but she kept winding up at the bottom when it came to the viewers' votes.

"If the Fox reality/competition show was about dancing talent and nothing else, Utahn Jenna Johnson wouldn't keep ending up on the bottom when the viewers' votes are counted, thus needing the judges to save her," The Salt Lake City Tribune defended their hometown contestant in 2013.

For Johnson, it wasn't a simple answer. She needed a push from Emmy Award-winning choreographer to set her head straight in the middle of the competition.

"My overall experience personally… oh man, I was a mess, she told Dance Dish Media in 2017. 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.' "

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Photo credit: FOX.

That one moment sent her back to reality to focus on the work she needed to do, not gaining the approval of everyone watching the show. Johnson admitted that she felt "much pressure to prove [her]self" because she had "this added pressure of wanting America to fall in love with you."

That shift in mindset landed her in the Top 8 of season 10, and eventually opened to door for her to join the troupe on "Dancing With the Stars" in season 18. She was promoted to pro in season 23, but that ride had a few bumps in it, too. She's found herself the target of online trolls, who would direct unwarranted comments about her body. The criticism wounded her deeply.

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," she confided. "They would post the most horrendous things."

It was Chmerkovskiy who helped her redirect her energies away from the negativity because the online bullies were all hiding behind a keyboard. "My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, really helped me not give in to the comments and to screw the haters," she told Noemi magazine in April. "He helped me see that these people don’t know you personally, so why are you going to give them the time of day?"

Johnson knows that her "driving force" in life is dance because it is her consistent "safe place" and allows her to feel "100% confident" in herself. "Dance has never given up on me and continues to make me feel strong and empowered," she revealed.

That revelation carried into season 29 where her choreography and artistry reached new heights. It was her personal goal to push herself in a different direction as a choreographer — something the viewers hadn't seen before.

"For me, this season has been really about pushing the boundaries with my choreography and taking more risks," she admitted to Women's Day. "I think in the past I've been so nervous about doing something different or doing something that maybe hasn't been done before because you don't know what to expect or what the reaction will be.

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Nev Schulman and Jenna Johnson. Photo credit: ABC/Eric McCandless.

That outside-the-box choreography was on display during the finale when she and Schulman repeated their favorite dance of the season — a Paso Doble that echoed dark themes from the Natalie Portman movie, "Black Swan." Yet it was their modern-version of "Singin' in the Rain" — complete with rain effects — that looked like it jumped right off the Broadway stage. Mirrorball trophy or not, Johnson saw her personal achievements unlocked — she created work from the heart.

With an upcoming 2021 tour (pending local theater regulations due to the pandemic) with her husband, Murgatroyd and brother-in-law Maks Chmerkovskiy, and their on-demand dance platform, Dance & Co, her talents will continue to be on display beyond the latest season of "Dancing with the Stars." She's proof that it's important to keep evolving and developing as an artist because the road can be a bumpy one — but the most important lesson is to let your authentic self shine through.

It's an idea she likes to share with other young dancers she teaches and mentors on the 24 SEVEN Dance Convention in the "Dancing With the Stars off-season." There is a lesson in patience — and hard work— that we can all learn from the professional dancer.

"Don’t ever forget that love, desire, and passion that you have for dance, even in those times that you’re struggling and getting frustrated, she summed up to Noemi magazine. "Don’t let that determination die because it will happen for you, just give it time."

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Kristyn Burtt is a commercial dance journalist, TV host and producer. She was the West Coast correspondent and host of "To the Pointe" on Dance Network for five years. Her coverage of "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing With the Stars" and "World of Dance" is popular with dance fans across the globe. Kristyn's love of dance began early in her life. She trained at the Boston Ballet School, danced with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in "The Nutcracker" and won a dance scholarship to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She currently serves on the American Dance Movement’s Marketing & PR Committee and is a member of the Television Academy and SAG-AFTRA.

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