Bahja Johnson

Alumni Stories: Bahja Johnson

Bahja Johnson’s COCA story began in 1998 when she attended a summer camp at New City School and met Lee Nolting, former COCA Teaching Artist and founding Artistic Director of COCAdance. At the conclusion of camp, Miss Lee encouraged Bahja’s mother to bring Bahja to COCA, where she first enrolled in Jazz I. Bahja continued her dance training in COCA’s Pre-Professional Division, taking classes in jazz, ballet, modern, and tap. She continued dancing throughout high school as part of the Dance Squad at John Burroughs School and in college with the Quaker Girls Dance Team at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“I didn’t realize at the time that the dance community at COCA was one of the most reputable, respected, and loved,” said Bahja. “The joy of dance instilled in me at COCA by Miss Lee has carried me throughout my life and my career.” 

Bahja is a dynamic fashion and diversity & inclusion leader within the retail industry. Most recently, she served as Head of Equality & Belonging at Gap Inc. where she focused on cultivating a culture of belonging for employees, delivering inclusive products and experiences for customers and communities, and enabling the end-to-end integration of the Equality & Belonging strategy across the Gap Inc. portfolio.   

The arts continue to have one of the biggest impacts on her life today. She lives in New York City—and the arts are what make the city come to life. After watching Miss Lee’s Celebration of Life, Bahja was inspired to take dance classes in her spare time. Today, the proud COCA alumna is a student at the Alvin Ailey Extension where she once again experiences the joy and love for dance that started at COCA.  

“For the last two years, I have done a spring Alvin Ailey intensive workshop. The style that I picked was jazz. Because it was the first class that I took at COCA. I’m happy to be a jazz dancer in my jazz shoes to this day!” 

Bahja does not take for granted the meaningful, enriching arts experiences that she had access to through COCA and her training within the Pre-Professional Division. 

“I got to watch Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey when they came to St. Louis. I got to see and experience some of the best and notable Broadway programs because I was a COCA student. And I got to learn from some of the best in the business, like Robert Battle! I did a workshop with Robert Battle at age 13 because of COCA. That is why access is important. It gives people really enriching experiences that help shape the fabric of who they are and what they become.” 

COCA is thrilled to welcome Bahja back to COCA as our 2024 COCAcabana Alumni Chair to help us raise funds for our SAY Yes appeal, which helps ensure increased and equitable access for students to experience, learn from, and excel in the arts. Through the generous support of our donors, COCA annually provides nearly $1 million in scholarships and arts education programs. SAY Yes to Support Arts for Youth and help us further our reach throughout the community and onsite at COCA. 

“Contributing to the SAY Yes Appeal means you are contributing to the legacy of the arts in St. Louis. It’s bigger than COCA. It’s bigger than one person, one leader, one organization. The arts are an integral part of St. Louis, and everyone should be able to experience the arts here. Contributing to the SAY Yes appeal, you’re contributing to making St. Louis an all-around more inclusive, more equitable, and more artsy place.” 


Uplifting the Arts in Our Community

Help COCA continue to provide meaningful arts experiences that foster creativity and confidence for our students.