Dancer, teacher, poet, and cashier — Jhe Russell is a man of many talents

Jhe Russell is a cashier at the New Pioneer Food Co-op with a rich history that he’s eager to share. With an MFA in dance from the UI, teaching his self-developed method for the five ballet positions is one of many ways he gives back to the world.


Grace Kreber

Jhe Russell poses for a portrait next to his angel number on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. Russell has a degree in Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa and has developed new dance teaching methods.

Olivia Augustine, Arts Reporter

At the New Pioneer Food Co-op on Van Buren Street, Jhe Russell can be found folding paper hats for the kids who come in. He tries to get to know every customer who walks through the doors.

For those who have conversed with Russell, they understand that there is a lot to get to know about him. He has an MFA in dance from the University of Iowa, spent a year and a half in Switzerland touring Europe with the Boston Ballet Company, and taught dance for several years on the East Coast, including in North and South Carolina.

Russell grew up in a suburb of Boston, MA. At 6 years old, decided he wanted to be Superman. When he saw a man in tights flying across the stage in a commercial for the Boston Ballet, he’d found just how he was going to do it.

Since touring with the group years later, Russell has developed a special teaching method that combines the five primary ballet positions with five naturally occurring elements: earth, water, air, fire, and ether, the element often referred to as space taken up by other elements. He’s also merged this method with mathematical shapes and forms.

“Nature really is what motivated me to get into the movement, because I wasn’t taught nature. I was taught the technical aspects,” Russell said.

Russell said that when he began dancing, he was told that he should look into learning African Dance. What started out as proving Black men could do ballet turned into a passion for promoting mental and physical health in the dance world.

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After suffering several injuries and being pushed to work through them, Russell realized there was a lack of instructors willing to check in on their students and make sure they were okay, he said. This, along with misdiagnoses for many of his injuries, pushed him into the world of holistic healing.

While working as a cashier, Russell met a customer who suffered a tremendous brain injury at age 12, and is now paralyzed on her left side. He said they now work on holistic healing through dance once a week.

“We’re trying to work on a movement,” he said about his work. “We’re just simply not forcing the technique, but we’re doing something cerebral and otherworldly without hurting ourselves.”

In addition to dance, choreography, and teaching, Russell is also a poet and a rapper. He recently released music on SoundCloud with a coworker at New Pioneer Food Co-op.

Today, Russell has heroes other than Superman. One of them was Raven Wilkinson, the first-ever African American professional ballerina. Russell said Wilkinson changed his life and way of thinking. Not only was she a role model as an African American and a dancer, but she taught him how to be humble, he said.

“[She was] very elegant, her memory very sharp, very open-minded,” Russell said. “What I loved about her, I could tell her some really deep stuff that I was researching and she never judged it, never cut it off. She let me speak.”

Russell was able to read aloud a tribute poem he wrote to Wilkinson before her passing in 2018 — a longtime dream of his.

Jhe Russell is many things: a cashier, a choreographer, a teacher, a poet, a rapper, and a dancer. When asked to describe himself, however, he takes the complexity out of it all, and wraps it into a simple statement.

“I am a being of light,” he said. “I love everybody and… what I do is about expressing the important parts of our body.”