By Heidi Simmons
Born and raised in Southern California, Katharine Johnson’s parents never dreamed she’d be a firefighter. A tomboy who played soccer, Johnson was on the swim team and loved surfing. It never occurred to her parents to put her in dance classes.
Now Johnson will be performing two ballroom dances in front of a live audience as a contestant in the Desert AIDS Project’s “Dancing with the Desert Stars.”
“I’ll be professional on the outside, but I’m nervous on the inside,” Johnson said. “It’s all for a good cause. So, even if I fall on my butt and everyone laughs it’s okay. It’ll be worth it.”
Johnson has been a firefighter for six years. She started with the Palm Springs Fire Department in 2007. She is the only woman in the Department of 50 men. Her rank is Engineer Paramedic.
As President of the Palm Springs Fireman’s Association, Johnson was open to the experience of dancing. “Our Association does a lot of great things,” said Johnson. “We do ‘Fill the Boot’ for MDA (Muscular Dystrophy Association), Easter Egg Hunt at Ruth Hardy Park, the annual Fish Fry and the Light’s Parade. That’s just a few. We do events all year.”
Never a dancer, Johnson had to learn the terminology and a new way to exercise. Johnson discovered muscles she didn’t know she had. “It takes different muscles for dancing. You have to be flexible, hold a pose, and be on you toes. It’s a great workout,” said Johnson.
Firefighters work 24-hour shifts and Johnson could only schedule one day a week for practice. “Now that I know the dance, we will practice more. But I’m not sure how much difference it will make. I’m doing dances that are opposite of who I am!”
The most challenging for Johnson is that she’ll be doing a sexy vamp style dance. “It is really bringing out the girlie-girl in me,” said Johnson. “It’s 180 degrees from my personality.”
In the line of duty, Johnson meets strangers all the time and must be able to talk to them, solve problems and meet their needs. So when it came to choosing the dances and music, Johnson left it up to her partner, Anthony Jackson. “I trust him completely. He’s the boss,” she said. “We didn’t struggle. He’s the professional.”
Johnson is an impressive 5’10”. Being tall is an advantage in her business of moving hose, lifting ladders and it certainly will make an impression on the dance floor. “DAP does so much here in the valley. I know people with AIDS and have patients with AIDS. I’m happy to help and I’ll do my best.”