Johanna Colón told television talk show host Ellen DeGeneres her favorite dance moves are the shimmy and the snap. She grooved with Michael Strahan on “Good Morning America.” She taste-tested salsa on a YouTube episode of Nickelodeon’s “Talia in the Kitchen.” She showed off her moves on “¡Despierta América!,” an American Spanish-language morning show.
When video of Johanna dancing to Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect” went viral last summer, the Raleigh girl, who is 7 now, and her family packed up her pink tutu and black tap shoes and hit the road. The Colóns have traveled the nation – New York, Los Angeles, Miami – so Johanna could strut her stuff on national television programs.
The fame was completely unexpected, and nearly instantaneous. One moment Johanna was a typical first-grader performing a routine with two other dancers at a recital for Heather’s Dance in Knightdale. The next she was an Internet superstar.
I wrote about Johanna and her family in June. She was sweet as could be, despite all that sassiness she oozes on stage.
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So I wondered what life was like now for Johanna and her family, nearly six months and 21 million YouTube views later. Did overnight fame turn a kind and generous child into an attention-seeking nightmare who yells at her parents and demands only pink M&M’s before appearances?
Not at all.
Johanna is pursuing a career in show business, but for the most part, life is the same for the Colóns. They go on trips for shows and interviews, but not much has changed at home.
Johanna still goes to dance class and attends church at St. Francis of Assisi in North Raleigh. She watches the Disney Channel and listens to music. She was excited this month to see “The Peanuts Movie.”
Her mother, Elissa Colón, said it was important for Johanna to have a sense of normalcy.
“She needs to be a regular child,” said Colón, 32. “She needs to be able to grow up.”
Some things have changed, though. Johanna started the school year as a second-grader at Forestville Road Elementary in Knightdale. But she was missing so much school for show appearances that she now is enrolled in the North Carolina Virtual Academy, an online program.
Even when the family is traveling, Johanna can complete her assignments.
“I needed her to understand that school is as important as everything else she is doing,” Colón said.
Strangers sometimes recognize Johanna in public places – once at a Kohl’s department store, at Walmart and on an airplane.
The family is working with an agent, Terri Dollar, owner of Kids Unlimited Talent Agency in Raleigh. Johanna hasn’t landed any gigs yet, but Dollar said she’s optimistic Johanna can make it in the business.
“I’m sure it’s going to happen,” she said.
Already, strangers sometimes recognize Johanna in public places – once at a Kohl’s department store, at Walmart and on an airplane, Colón said. So she’s extra careful to not let Johanna wander off on her own.
“That’s hard,” Johanna said recently during an interview in her family’s kitchen. She went back to being silly right away: “But I can walk away in this house. Bye-bye.”
How much is too much?
Johanna’s father, Carlos, filmed the dance performance during the recital last summer, and her mother posted it on Facebook.
Elissa Colón said she normally made online posts about her children private, so only friends and family could see. But she said she was distracted when she posted the video of the dance routine, and it was made public.
Plenty has been written about whether parents should share openly about their children online. Some people might argue we’re violating kids’ privacy when we talk about them or share photos and videos.
Two-year-old Bob (a fictional character I just made up) might not have much to say now about that video you posted of him in a diaper smearing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich all over himself. A couple decades from now, college-bound Bob might not be thrilled.
I’m not a parent to anyone other than a 40-pound hound dog, and she can’t complain about the endless pictures I share of her sleeping, eating tortilla chips and generally behaving poorly. But I regularly post photos of my nieces and nephews, and I do so without much thought.
Dollar, who owns the talent agency, said posting about children is symbolic of “the era in which we live.” You know – if it’s not tweeted out to the masses, is it even real?
But Dollar said a parent’s No. 1 responsibility is to raise “awesome children.” She’s not crazy about videos that present kids in a negative light.
“The kid crying over the Halloween candy – that’s funny at the child’s expense,” Dollar said.
But positive videos like the one of Johanna and her friends gettin’ down to a classic tune? Dollar said she’s fine with that.
She cautioned, however, that children who become Internet sensations won’t necessarily land a glamorous career in show business.
“It might get you through the door,” Dollar said of those who have found online fame. “But once you get through that door, you are on your own.”
Johanna burst through the door.
Time will tell what it will mean for her in the long run. She said she wants to run a restaurant some day – a goal she had before the fame. She also wants to dance and sing.
“I’m hoping for whatever makes her happy,” Elissa Colón said. “If it comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Johanna jumped in: “No, I want it.”
In the meantime, the family is focusing on staying humble.
I’m hoping for whatever makes her happy.
Elissa Colón, mother of 7-year-old Johanna
When Johanna and her peers from Heather’s Dance appeared on “Ellen” in September, they received gift cards to Toys ‘R’ Us. Johanna spent half of the money she received on supplies for WakeMed Children’s Hospital, where her 4-year-old brother, C.J., has undergone numerous surgeries.
C.J. has Hirschsprung’s disease, a condition that affects the large intestine. Colón said the family will appear on an upcoming episode of “The Doctors” to talk about the illness.
The Colóns recently created a “thankful tree” in their home to list what they appreciate most in life. Johanna said she was thankful for family, school, books, drawing, singing and being on TV shows.
Colón said she doesn’t regret posting the video of her daughter, or anything that has happened since.
“At the end of the day, you don’t know how long this ride will last,” she said. “This could be over tomorrow. And at the end of the day, you want your child to be healthy and happy.”