A smiling woman seated on the grounded with pointed toes

“Real Women, Real Work” is a Darling series about everyday women who work in various fields including business, entertainment, science and education. We want to get to know the WHY behind their WHAT and get an inside look into different industries.

When she moves her foot, the world stands in awe. Jenna Johnson is a professional dancer and choreographer. She first stepped onto the public dance stage in 2013 at just 18 years old when she auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance. She would go on to finish as the ladies’ third runner-up for season 10, but this wouldn’t be the last time we’d hear from Johnson. This was just the beginning.

Johnson went on to compete on Dancing with the Stars for nine seasons, as well as five of the Dancing with the Stars: Live! tours. Jenna is also the season 26 Dancing With the Stars champion, which she won with partner Olympian Adam Rippon. Her husband Valentin Chmerkovskiy, aka Val, is also a heavy weight in the dance world with 14 U.S. National Champion titles, two World Dance Champion titles and two Dancing with the Stars wins. The dancing duo are couples goals for support and camaraderie on the dance floor and even light up our screens with hilarious TikTok routines.

Today, the Utah native has become a household name known for competing on the world’s biggest television dance competitions. At the height of her fame, Johnson opened up about her struggles with mental health and body image, allowing her fans to connect with her even more. Darling got to chat with Johnson about her dance career and her personal journey to becoming a confident woman. Here’s what she had to say:

Growing up in Utah, did you always want to be a dancer?

I was told from a young age that I was a performer. Whether it was a family gathering or school performance, I would always put on a show. My mom always told me there was something in my eye, a sparkle. She knew I wanted to be a performer.

My mom always told me there was something in my eye, a sparkle.

I had two older sisters in dance. I remember I would run into their class to watch. I started dancing at the age of 3, and there was nothing else I wanted to pursue from thereon.

At the age of 13, I knew I wanted to make a career out of it. At that time some dance shows were popping up, but it was not a realistic career. I continued to train at Center Stage in Utah. I cross trained in all genres from ballroom to hip hop. I had the happiest moments of my life training.

When I was 18, I knew I wanted to audition for a dance show. I auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance. I made it pretty far on the show. It was the first time I thought I knew I could make money doing this. 

When was the moment in your early dance career when things started taking off and you felt like, “Wow, this is happening?”

At a young age, I knew I wanted dance to be what I did forever. SYTYCD was the first time I performed on camera. I absolutely loved it. It was the “aha” or epiphany moment that I want to be on camera.

That was the first time I knew this is where I want to be. Dancing on live television with a red dot on the camera—it is an adrenaline rush. 

You were on SYTYCD at 19 years old. Was it challenging being in the spotlight at such a young age?

Absolutely, I come from a family in Utah. None of my siblings had ever pursued this Hollywood career, but my family supported me in it through and through. At this time, social media started popping up, and I first started experiencing “haters” or online bullying.

Watching yourself on TV for the first time is very humbling and vulnerable. You pick yourself apart and at the same time hundreds of thousands of people are picking at you. It’s a lot to take in. My family didn’t know how to deal with it either. 

The executive producer of SYTYCD really helped me refocus on my end goal, to rise and become an incredible artist—as well as the choreographer Mandy Moore. She mentored me my whole life and helped me remember my purpose.

You’ve been on the two biggest, televised dance competitions in the world, So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars. What was it like transitioning from one dance competition to the other?

There are similarities, but there are also differences. On SYTYCD, you are finding these aspiring dancers from small towns. We are aspiring to be someone and get our names out there.

On Dancing With the Stars, I was put with people who had established careers. It gave me a challenge. It made me work harder for people to know who I am.

You’ve been open about your mental health struggles and battles with social media comparison. How did you learn to overcome these things?

At first, I tried to hide everything and pretend that everything was perfect on the outside. The more I did that, the more unhappy and depressed I was. It took me a few years to open up and be secure about my flaws. The second I was open and honest, I felt so at peace with myself.

The second I was open and honest, I felt so at peace with myself.

A smiling woman in a red sweater

The outpouring of love, support and people sharing their own stories gave me so much strength. It was one of the truly most beautiful experiences. I started this blog, and it reminded me that so many more people are going through what you are going through. I felt so much strength and empowerment.

I really think social media is so awesome, but it is also seriously flawed. Social media can easily lead to comparison. Comparison is the thief of joy. I live by that quote. Today, I still struggle with comparison, and I have to check myself. I know that I am perfectly imperfect, and I’ve learned to embrace that.

Do you have any go-to rituals that you must do before going on stage?

Yes, of course! I go into my trailer by myself and take a second to breathe. I take three deep breaths. I also always say a prayer before. Another tradition is that Val and I always have to kiss each other before a show. If I do not see him before a show, then I would literally run to find him.

What was it like competing on DWTS against your husband Val Chmerkovskiy?

It was amazing and stressful. Val and I were not super competitive. So I felt like I had a secret weapon with him by my side. On performance days, I am already stressed about myself and my partner. Val being there too was a lot because then I’d be worrying about him.

I would say it is pretty awesome to share a passion with my husband. I feel my greatest and at my best when I am dancing with him. He is, I think, one of the greatest dancers that has been on DWTS. He is an acclaimed, medaled dancer. I feel like I am in great hands when I’m with him.

Working together as a couple has made us reflect on how we balance our work and personal lives. We are not always dance partners. At the end of the day, I want to come home to my husband. We have had to learn to find the balance of just going on a date night just for us and how to be normal people for a second.

You and your partner, Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon, won the Season 26 Mirrorball Championship. What were the harder and sweeter parts of the journey leading up to the win?

Throughout the season, the good always outweighs the bad. My partner is one of the most genuine and hysterical humans. He can make me laugh and cry in the same moment. One of the best parts of Season 26 was having him by my side. He pushed me to create routines that would challenge him.

One of the challenges throughout the season was not getting in my head. We went into every week only focusing on ourselves. That was a challenge because he had just blown up. It was right after the Olympics and everyone wanted a piece of Adam.

Also, for DWTS, you practice every single day with no days off. Regardless of his schedule, we’d practice. He’d show up and be ready to work. 

You practice every single day with no days off.

Can you tell me about the Dancing With the Stars: Live 2020! Tour and your upcoming tour?

This is the longest tour DWTS has ever done. It’s an 80-show tour. We have been able to meet our fans, see the country and meet the people who voted with us. I get to do all of this with my husband. So for me, this is awesome. When we are shooting for DWTS, we are behind a camera. Going on tour allows us to get out there and meet our fans. We really love it!

The new tour, with myself, Val, Maks Chmerkovskiy and Peta Murgatroyd, is called the Motion Pictures Tour. The theme is iconic motion pictures, and we are going to take people through motion pictures through dance. This will be the first time the four of us will be on stage together.

It is a 57-city tour starting June 11 through August 16. I am really looking forward to dancing with Maks. It will be fun to switch up the couples. Also, this will be so fun to look back on and show our kids that we did this. It is such a blessing to get to do a tour as a family.

It is such a blessing to get to do a tour as a family.

What are your future goals for yourself personally and professionally?

DWTS is a really big dream of mine and this tour coming up with my family. I have also wanted to do Broadway forever. I would love to headline or be a part of a show!

Another personal dream of mine is TV.  I secretly want to be a TV host. I love being in front of the camera. There are just so many things in this industry I want to try and do. 

I secretly want to be a TV host. I love being in front of the camera.

Personally, I can’t wait to be a mom. I can’t wait to have little Russian babies running around. I think dancing is going to be in their blood. Val wants them to be mathematicians. 

What advice would you give your younger self?

There’s a lot she needed to hear. I appreciate that my younger self always had a drive and a work ethic. It motivated me to become the dancer I am today.

I would tell her, “Trust the process and never stop believing in yourself.” Young women put a lot of pressure on themselves. I wish she would have believed in herself, knew her value and trusted the process.

Important Note: The Dancing With the Stars: Live 2020! Tour has been postponed for the remainder of the tour due to the current global health situation.

Images via Rick Bhatia

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