When you search for Princess Mhoon Dance Studio, you will be led to her magnificent web site and see dancers in motion dressed in colorful costumes, wearing expressions of sheer joy and deep concentration on their faces. You will read her impressive resume and wonder, “How did we get so lucky to have this national treasure teaching dance and giving back to her community right here in Montgomery County?”
Visit the Princess Mhoon Dance Institute website and you will find gorgeous images of vibrant costumes and bodies in joyful motion. It is an inspiring sight, and she is an artistic force not well known outside of the world of dance. Princess Mhoon is a choreographer, producer, educator, and scholar who is transforming the artistic landscape of the Nation’s Capitol.
When I interviewed Princess Mhoon my first thought was that it’s a wonder we got so lucky to have this national treasure teaching dance and giving back to her community in Montgomery County. I was impressed by her strength, her sense of purpose, and the sheer will and determination that brings her art to the world. You would be forgiven for thinking that she came by her success easily, that her family had endless resources to give her access to the best training in the world, yet her road was anything but easy.
Princess and her brother, Prince, were born to young parents who were both deeply immersed in the Black Arts Movement in Chicago. Her parents had a tumultuous relationship that ended with Princess, her brother and mother, Aimy Mary Mhoon, moving in with her grandparents. When she was eight years old her father was killed; that same year she became captivated first by ballet, and then by African Dance one year later. I couldn’t help but wonder at this part of the interview if her father’s spirit and her unconscious desire to be close to him bought her to this place, or whether it was the influence of having artists for parents that enabled her to emerge so naturally as an artist herself. Whatever it was that set her on her course, she still had to beg her mother for dance classes. Aimy, however, was hesitant, and she was not supportive of Princess Mhoon’s early ambitions, due in large part to wanting to move forward and leave her past as an artist behind.
Luckily for Princess Mhoon, a schoolmate took dance classes and she invited the young girl to attend a recital. Turns out that their mothers knew each other, so Aimy eventually acquiesced and enrolled her in the class and later volunteered at the school in exchange for Princess Mhoon’s tuition.
Five years later, Princess Mhoon auditioned for a professional dance company in the 8th grade and got the job. This allowed her to explore other dance genres, including more Ballet, Jazz, and Hip Hop. Her association with the professional dance company, as well as her mother’s invaluable support and encouragement, helped her earn scholarships to continue her studies. In high school Princess Mhoon was dancing 6 days a week, got involved in the student government, and was also voted onto her school’s homecoming court. She was a hard-working, dedicated student at school and in dance, and her efforts paid off. She received two full scholarships for college, but turned them down in order to attend Howard University, where her idol, Debbie Allen, had gone. Thinking she had her paperwork in order, Princess Mhoon arrived at Howard University only to find out that there was a balance of $5,000.00 owed on her financial aid package. So she called her grandmother, because not going to Howard was just not an option, and begged her to pay the balance needed to let her enroll. Her grandmother, furious at the mistake and cost, paid, but accidentally made the check out to Harvard University. The error was not caught and the check got cashed. Princess was finally on her way.
Once in school, she applied for scholarships and grants and worked extra jobs to help defray her living expenses. Sounds exhausting, and it was. But Princess Mhoon said to me that, as she looks back on her life and her struggles to create her art and be successful, she never thought no meant no; she always thought no meant “not right now”. Her indefatigable spirit would be immensely useful throughout college; and then when she moved to New York with $500 in her pocket and nowhere to stay, because within a week she’d found a job, an apartment, and tape to repair the straps on her shoes that broke from walking all over the city to get these things done; and then again when she branched off with her friends to start their own show in a profession where the artists were mostly women and the directors and founders mostly men.
Princess Mhoon has never been afraid to break the mold, to work beyond the constraints that often hold others back. Her spirit and determination brought her professional success as she navigated a difficult marriage and divorce, raising three exquisite children, and fighting for her vision when those in charge didn’t want to give an inch. Through the triumphs and heartbreaks, Princess Mhoon will always find a way to create her art and teach others to express theirs.
Princess Mhoon is the founder of DANCING FEET, an integrated arts program that includes classes and workshops for schools and outreach institutions. She was recognized in 2015 by The Huffington Post as one of 26 Female Choreographers “You Should Know” and Dance Magazine‘s 2006 “Top 25 to Watch” in the world for the Women’s Choreography Project titled This Woman’s Work. In 2016 she was invited to participate as one of the region’s leading dance leaders by First Lady Michelle Obama during her Celebration of Black Women in Dance; she also served as a panelist for The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans during Women’s History Month. Princess Mhoon is also a 2015 Helen Hayes Award Nominee for Best Choreography in a Musical, and a Helen Hayes winner for Best Musical. She is also a 2016 class member of Leadership Greater Washington.
The opening of PMDI is the continuation of a lifelong commitment to the field of dance. The Institute provides scholarships to dancers who would not otherwise be able to afford their dream to dance. If interested in helping fund their work, please visit www.princessmhoondance.com and click on “Give”.