Dance: Philadanco and Joan Myers Brown: A Forceful Combination
By Dawn Lille
ART TIMES Winter 2015
Joan Myers Brown founded the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts and then the Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco) because of the lack of opportunities available to black students, dancers, and choreographers. In the process, this talented and forceful ballet dancer has created and developed two nationally admired institutions and given the dance world many of its talents.
Born in Philadelphia, the only child of Julius Myers, a chef, and Nellie Myers, who was trained in chemistry and worked as a researcher, she graduated from West Philadelphia High School. Here she was invited by Virginia Lingenfelder, a white gym teacher, to join the ballet club and also encouraged by her to take private lessons with a white teacher. At this time (the 1940s and 50s) ballet schools throughout America were segregated. If you lived in Philadelphia and were black, you were not permitted to try on shoes in a store and sat in the balcony of movie theaters, in addition to being barred from the white ballet schools.
Brown also studied with two talented and creative black ballet teachers, Sydney King and Marion Cuyjet, and began teaching. A scholarship allowed her to study both ballet and the Katherine Dunham technique in New York at the Dunham School. She also took class for a year with the English born Antony Tudor when he came to teach for the Philadelphia Ballet Guild. This was the first desegregated ballet class in the city and was often taught by the Uruguayan born Alfredo Corvino as well. Many black dancers who studied ballet in different parts of America at the time have noted that the only teachers who did not focus on the color of a student’s skin were foreign born.
She started performing in recitals, the Philadelphia Cotillion Balls and the local black cabaret circuit, then in clubs throughout the country and, for several years, Canada. Tudor gave her the opportunity to perform in the corps of Les Sylphide, which he staged for a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She has referred to herself as “the fly in the buttermilk” in this production.
By 1959 she was dancing in Atlantic City with Larry Steele’s revue, often as the featured ballerina en pointe, and also as a choreographer. She performed with Cab Callaway, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis, Jr., among others, recognizing that as a black ballet dancer she would never find work in a classical ballet company, and she threw away that dream.
It was this realization and a desire to offer the best possible training to students in her own community that led Brown to open her school in Philadelphia in 1960 and to form a company in 1970. The first six years of the school this lithe performer commuted nightly to her dancing job in Atlantic City, while teaching and administrating during the day, indicative of the bold and steely interior underneath her often laconic exterior.
The school offers training in ballet, modern dance, tap, gymnastics, and hip hop to students from age five through adulthood. There are regulations regarding health, attendance, and dress in an atmosphere that is strictly professional, yet embraces and welcomes the community. The faculty is highly trained and is supplemented by renowned guest teachers. Scholarships are available for everything from classes to leotards to the summer program.
Philadanco was founded ten years after the school because there were so few opportunities for the dancers she had educated. Now recognized throughout the world as a result of its extensive touring, Philadanco was among the first dance companies in the United States to offer a full year contract, health benefits and affordable housing. The latter is the result of Brown buying and renovating nearby buildings for the use of the company. There is a training program that encompasses an Apprentice Company and a Youth Ensemble, both of which encourage growth as artists and as fully developed individuals.
The performances of the company are often characterized by quickness, what one critic called “menacing speed” that can be “electrifying,” but they still project every aspect of the choreography, a quality inherent in their training. Besides precisely placed feet, this results in extraordinary torso movement and is motivated by the concept of doing everything full out.
After a performance that involved other companies the Los Angeles critic Lewis Segal wrote, “…nobody outclassed the tireless, 12 Pennsylvania based modern dance paragons from the Philadanco Company.” Theirs is strong visual presentation, but it can be lyrical as well, with meticulous attention to costumes and lighting.
From the beginning Brown saw Philadanco as an outlet and training ground for talented young choreographers, particularly black ones, who had even fewer opportunities than the dancers. She wishes to give them the luxury of experimenting and even failing. They have danced works by such known talents as Talley Beatty, Louis Johnson, Gene Hill Sagan and Milton Myers. Contemporary creators include Ronald K. Brown, Jawolle Zollar and Christopher Huggins. This spring they will dance Bad Blood by Ulysses Dove.
Just as the company is a melting pot of dance styles – ballet, modern, contemporary, jazz – Philadanco is integrated. Brown says that although her original intention was to help underserved black children, she believes that dance should represent America. The fact that ballet companies do not is one of the reasons she did not form a ballet academy. She wanted her students to be able to dance for a living and many have gone on to do so.
Brown, both a nurturing and demanding force of nature, remains involved seven days a week in both institutions she created – teaching, rehearsing, fundraising, washing costumes after a performance, and even diapering a grandchild on occasion. She is also active in the International Association of Blacks in Dance, which she co founded, and has served on numerous national and state panels and boards.
She says she is getting tired still fighting racism and searching for money. Grants for the arts, especially dance, are down, and there are few if no funds for overhead. So she faces a battle every day in the metropolis that has also honored her.
Among the many awards and honors this dignified and still beautiful woman has received are many from her native city, which gave her the Philadelphia Award in 2009 and declared November 7, 2010, Joan Myers Brown Living Legacy Day. She has received two honorary doctorates, the most recent from the University of Pennsylvania in 2015, and has been recognized by the Kennedy Center and Dance/USA.
When President Barack Obama awarded Joan Myers Brown the National Medal of the Arts in 2013 he cited her for carving out “an artistic haven for African American dancers and choreographers to innovate, create, and share their unique visions with the national and global communities.” What a superb example of the positive qualities of an art form!