Cool Class: DANCE 405: Conditioning, Self-Defense, and Combat for Theatre I-IV

In DANCE 405, students learn body awareness and control skills that serve them on stage and off.

photo of a classroom sign that says Cool Class Dance 405 by Nick Sloff '92 A&A


Martial arts, kickboxing, self-defense, and more. In Erik Johnson’s DANCE 405 class, students learn elements of each to help them build a sense of physical awareness, gain body control, and enhance athleticism, flexibility, and coordination—on stage (many of Johnson’s students are theater majors) and in everyday life.

“I focus on positive energy,” says Johnson, who is professionally trained in martial arts (he’s a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo) and certified in stage combat by the Society of American Fight Directors. He is also the fight choreographer and one of the intimacy choreographers for School of Theatre productions. “I want the students to gain greater self-confidence, a greater awareness of precision, reaction time, and presence through focus and perseverance, as well as gain respect for themselves and others.”

Each class begins with a solid workout—done to loud music and designed to build strength and flexibility—followed by a practice of self-defense skills drawn from multiple forms of martial arts. “I believe everybody should learn how to protect themselves,” Johnson says. “Even if they don’t turn into a Jason Bourne or a character from a Marvel flick, they should at least be able to execute a few moves to feel more confident about getting themselves out of a dangerous situation.”

The physical strength they acquire in DANCE 405 also helps students learn basic, unarmed stage combat moves— falls, pushes, pulls, strikes, advanced strikes. More advanced students—theater majors take the class all four years of their degree—will learn how to use stage combat weapons including knives and swords. Finally, Johnson has his students choreograph their own two-to-three-minute stage combat scene and present it to their peers.  

“They map out a fight that would be in a film, a play, or a T.V. show,” he says. “By the time they do this, I feel pretty confident that they feel good about being in their body and are able to use the skills they have learned in class.”