Renowned dance historian Brenda Dixon Gottschild explores the history of African-American dance in the United States through the story of Joan Myers Brown, the legendary and determined founder of the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts and PHILADANCO, Philadelphia’s historic dance school and performance company. “Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina — A Biohistory of American Performance” (Palgrave Macmillan, $27) explores how Brown’s personal and professional history reflects the hardships and the accomplishments of African Americans in the artistic and social developments through the 20th century and into the new millennium.
“When I first met Joan, or JB as I like to call her, there was a little bit of apprehension because her manner is straight forward, straight talk, right on and on point, and it kind of makes you sit up and take notice and be on point yourself,” recalled Gottschild. “Born in 1931, JB began studying dance as a youngster in the same Philadelphia dance classes that spawned the likes of Judith Jamison and Billy Wilson. In order to give Black dancers quality training, she founded the Philadelphia School of Dance Art in 1960, at a time when racial discrimination kept African Americans out of white classes. Dance was her passion, and over time became her mission.
Gottschild uses Brown’s career to leverage an exploration of the connection between performance, society and race, exploring a concert dance tradition that has had no voice to tell its story. “In 1960, we were coming out of the era of segregation, so most of the dance schools in the area were segregated, and I had a population of Black youngsters that were friends of my family,” said Brown. “I started the school mainly because I wanted to stop dancing myself and probably try and give the youngster and opportunity I had missed. I worked at night, taught in the day and commuted 60 miles every day for six years.”
Since opening the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts in 1960 and the company (PHILADANCO) in 1970, Brown (known affectionately to students and alumni as “Aunt Joan”) has opened dance worlds for Black dancers at a time when they were marginalized and access to dance schools and careers was extremely limited. “There is a need in the community for dance and for activities for African-American youngsters,” explained Brown. “When I started my school. When I started my school, I was a little young, so I didn't want to be called Miss Joan, so I had all the kids call me Aunt Joan, and that still happens, they still call me Aunt Joan, and I think that makes us feel like family and feel interrelated.”
Over the decades, Brown has made significant contributions to the national and international arts communities served a broad range of regional and national organizations. She has convened four International Conferences of Black Dance Companies, facilitated the Smithsonian Institution’s Conference of Black Dance Companies and served as a consultant to East Coast Committee of Festival 2000, the San Francisco Bay Area Cultural Initiative, the NEA “Dance on Tour” ad hoc committee and the Kennedy Center Adult Education Task Force. Brown was honored as one of the “Dance Women; Living Legends” during a four-day series sponsored by New York area presenters, in tribute to five African-American pioneer women who founded distinguished modern dance companies with deep roots in Black communities around the country. In 2005, The Kennedy Center honored her as a Master of African American Choreography. Most recently she received the Philadelphia Award.
The success of her seemingly unending energy has been appreciated and recognized by the numerous requests for her keen input from such notable organizations as Pennsylvania State Council of the Arts, Ohio State Arts Council, New Jersey State Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, National Association for Female Executives, Port of History Museum (Ad Hoc Committee), Media Associates (Washington, D.C.), Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Wade Communications, Spruce Family Planning, Minority Arts Resource Council, West Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, Mayor’s Cultural Advisory Council, Advisory Panel for NEA, Expansion Arts Program, Executive Council of the Philadelphia Dance Alliance, Arts Administration for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Women’s Heritage Society, Painted Bride and Dance/USA and the Philadelphia Arts Alliance. Brown’s efforts on behalf of dance excellence belie a much larger contribution to the arts and the community. The grandmother of six remains a tireless advocate and spokesperson and is a model of tenacity, hope and discipline.
“Founded by Joan Myers Brown, a steelwilled visionary, Philadanco has grown from a grass-roots enterprise to a nationally recognized institution,” noted Jennifer Dunning, former dance critic of The New York Times. “With Ms. Brown, it has played an important role in promoting dance by predominantly Black troupes like hers and in helping to give them a stronger voice as shapers of American dance today.”
“Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina — A Biohistory of American Performance” is available in bookstores, on Amazon and as an e-book. The Literary Café presents “A Conversation With: Joan Myers Brown and Brenda Dixon Gottschild” on Monday, Jan. 9, 2012 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at The African American Museum in Philadelpia, 701 Arch Street. For more information about this free public event, call (215) 878-BOOK.
The African American Museum in Philadelphia’s 36th Anniversary Heritage Gala was held on Thursday, March 1 at the Marriott Hotel-Center City to honor Artistic Director Judith Jamison of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown, state Sen. Vincent Hughes and his wife activist/actress/author Sheryl Lee Ralph.
The evening began with a silent auction reception featuring music from “A New Perspective,” a Delaware Valley-based youth jazz ensemble. Other entertainment included dance performances from Rennie Harris Puremovement and Philadanco. The program highlighted the museum’s theme, “Breakthrough Black Culture,” for an audience of 600 guests.
Philadelphia Representative Melanie Johnson spoke in lieu of Mayor Michael Nutter, who indicated in a prior statement: “This evening you will celebrate the theme ‘Breakthrough Black Culture’ which reflects the challenges and triumphs African Americans have experienced in American history. It also showcases the Museum’s history of presenting educational and cultural experiences for the hundreds of thousands of visitors that have attended the Museum over three and a half decades.”
Upon accepting the 2012 Community Service Award, Sen. Hughes and his spouse underscored the importance of HUV/AIDS Awareness, with Ralph providing a heartfelt song upon acceptance of their award. In introducing the honoree video presentation, it was announced that Jamison, 68, was ill and would not be in attendance. NBC10’s Lori Wilson conducted a warm conversation with Brown while the attendees dined on beef, chicken, mashed sweet potatoes and asparagus.
The selections of Judith Jamison and Joan Myers Brown as honorees made the 2012 Gala particularly meaningful for Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, a former professional dancer who has deep admiration for both of these talented women. “Judith Jamison opened the doors for many African-American dancers to not just be employed, but to become the industry standard bearers for excellence,” said Reynolds Brown. “She turned the eyes of the world to her studio, and shined a laser beam on her dancers and their work. Joan Myers Brown has been Philadelphia’s cultural ambassador for over 40 years. As a former dancer in her company, Joan and Philadanco allowed me to travel the world to promote Philadelphia and the art of dance — an experience I will never forget. I am indebted to Joan Myers Brown, affectionately called ‘Aunt Joan.’”
The internationally acclaimed Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco) will present its inaugural Founder’s Day performance, taking place Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Dell Music Center, 33rd and Dauphin streets. The open air fundraiser is an effort to save the company, which has been struggling financially for a number of years.
“The Dell offered me an opportunity to bring dance back to the Dell, and I was trying to think of something that would make people want to respond to helping Philadanco,” said founder and Executive Artistic Director Joan Myers Brown. “[But] they would say, ‘What’s the occasion? It’s not a gala. It’s not an anniversary.’ So I came up with Founder’s Day, which is the first time they’re celebrating me. But it’s definitely a fundraiser, because I need some money.
“They stopped funding me in this town,” Brown said of Philadanco, which is one of the Kimmel Center’s eight resident companies. “I’m not getting any support out of Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s just not supporting me the way they should. When the opera [company] gets in trouble, and the ballet [company], they write the big checks. “They tell me that I’m mismanaging funds or not operating correctly or I need a COO, or I need all this other stuff. It’s really difficult.”
Brown disclosed that Philadanco is in grave danger of closing and that the dancers are “all on unemployment.”
“I’ve got two people in the office,” she said. “I’m the development director, the marketing director, the executive director and the artistic director.”
Brown’s colleagues from the arts community are stepping in to help, and Broadway/tap icon Maurice Hines will co-host the Founder’s Day program with Khaliah Ali, daughter of boxing great Muhammad Ali.
The Company will present works from its repertory including “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Enemy Behind the Gates,” “By Way of the Funk” and “Pretty is Skin Deep,” and in addition to the principal company, there will be performances by D/2 (Second Company) and D/3 (Youth Company), as well as numerous “Danco” alumnae, including Anthony Burrell, who currently works with multiple Grammy-winner Beyoncé as her lead dancer. There will also be a presentation by hip-hop dance company Rennie Harris’ RHAW.
Tickets to experience the creativity, raw power and skill that are Philadanco range from $10 for lawn seats to $100 for VIP seating, and will help the world-class company, which Brown founded as a dance school in 1970, keep its doors open.
“The thing is that Black Philadelphia needs to help us,” she said.
For tickets and information call the Dell box office at (215) 685-9560 or visit www.mydelleast.com.
Matthew Rushing’s ‘Moan’ an N.Y. hit
The Philadelphia Dance Company, commonly known as Philadanco, presents "Back to Black," taking place at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater Dec. 7-9. This exciting program of fan favorites will also feature the Philadelphia pPremiere of Matthew Rushing's "Moan," set to the music of the late R&B/jazz diva Nina Simone.
Joan Myers Brown, Philadanco founder and artistic director, reflected on the intriguing theme of her company's latest theatrical presentation, saying, "When we were in New York at the Joyce [Theater], I did almost the same program, so a woman said to me, 'I'm so glad we are back to Black!' I said, 'What do you mean, back to Black?' She said, 'Black dance! 'Cause I just love it!' I said, 'Well, what is Black dance anyhow? Characterize to me, what is Black dance.' She said, 'What you do!' I said, 'What is Black dance? Black people dancing? Is it Black choreographers? Black music?' She said, 'Y'all do all that! That's Black dance!' So I'm like, 'Okay...I think I'll use that!'"
Philadanco is having quite a bit of success with "Moan," the new work by Matthew Rushing, rehearsal director for the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The piece makes its Philadelphia debut and features "I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Don't Explain" by Nina Simone, the unique artist known as the "High Priestess of Soul."
"I got a call from the Jerome Robbins Foundation saying they wanted to give Philadanco money to commission a ballet," Myers explained. "They had a list of choreographers if I wanted to pick one of their choreographers – or did I want to come up with a choreographer? Matthew was on the list, so I selected him, and it's a good opportunity for him. He's choreographed on Ailey, but I don't think he's done a lot outside, so it's a chance for him to step outside of his normal pattern of working.
"He came up with the Nina Simone [theme] and called it 'Moan.' It's an interesting piece, and I think it's a fitting tribute to Nina." The program also includes Milton Myers' "Echoes: A Celebration of Alvin Ailey," and Ronald K. Brown's "Exotica" follows with a "dramatic excerpt" from the larger piece entitled "Lessons." The evening concludes with "Suite Otis," a fan favorite based on the music of the late R&B great Otis Redding. Brown would like to encourage longtime patrons and first-timers alike to make a Philadanco performance part of their holiday celebration.
"We just had a very successful season in New York. We did nine shows in seven days, she said. "We got like seven great reviews. The only one that didn't give us a great review was the New York Times, but it wasn't bad, because they usually slaughter people. I think seeing that we just had a big run in New York's Joyce Theater, if they could go to New York (to see Philadanco perform), then they can come see them (in Philadelphia). We have some new dancers that the people aren't familiar with, and you'll get a chance to watch them grow with Philadanco."
Since opening its doors eight years ago, Dance Journey has provided local kids with the opportunity to learn from some of the best dance instructors in the region.
Through dance, the students in the program, have learned the art of modern dance while evolving into young men and women.
Located at 718 Church Lane in Yeadon, this dance company is proving that there is no limit to what the kids in its program can do.
“Dance means something different for everybody,” said Denise “Nece” Lewis, artistic director of Dance Journey. “When our children walk through our doors we don’t know what their dealing with at home, but we’re not judgmental. While they are on our watch, we want to give them the value of everything that we have.
“Dance, for me, taught me patience, discipline, team work, how to be successful and [to] want to be the best,” she added. “These are all qualities that our students may be learning. We don’t want them to be the best dancer, but the best ‘them.’ We want them to succeed on the dance floor and in life. That is what our program is all about — giving them the tools to become the better them.”
The mission of Dance Journey is that through the art of dancing, students can prepare for life’s journey by helping them become better young people and helping them reach their dreams. Dance Journey offer classes in creative movement, pre-dance, ballet, toe, jazz, modern, tap and hip-hop.
The student’s ages range from 3 to 18. The program also offers Zumba and Zumba toning for adults. Some of the students are taught by instructors, Lewis, Tenniele M. Jenkins, Shavaun Swygert and Brandi M. Merritt. There are currently over 60 students participating in the program.
The adult program offers classes in creative movement, pre-dance, ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop
modern, Zumba and Zumba toning.
“One of [the] goals for the program is that we want to get more young boys involved,” she said. “When we were at Eastwick we did have a few boys take tap and hip-hop, but it’s been kind of difficult to get boys into the program. Unfortunately, this season we did not have any boys participate in the program, so we want to get more boys by reaching out to them this summer.”
Lewis has spent over 42 years in the performing arts, beginning as a student, becoming a performer and later, an educator. She received her early training at the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts under the direction of its founder and director Joan Myers Brown.
She studied, trained, performed and taught at the school for over 33 years. In l970, she became one of the original members of the Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco) where she continued working even after retiring from performing holding many positions for Artistic Director Joan Myers Brown.
Lewis said while she’s grateful for everything that she has accomplished in dance, it’s the instructor’s mission to teach the younger generation about dance and the history behind it.
“In addition to teaching the kids the dance itself we also teach them about the history of dance,” she said. “You will be surprised at how many people do not know Joan Myers Brown of Philadanco, Judith Jamison of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Arthur Mitchell of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
“All of these wonderful people have contributed to the art of dance,” Lewis added. “In our classes when they get a certain age we talk to the students about the history, why the terminology is in French, and [about] some of the greatest African Americans who have contributed to the dance. We don’t expect all students to become professional dancers, but it will help all of students be disciplined and help them succeed in life. Their journey in dance will help inspire their journey in life.”
For more information on Dance Journey, call (484) 461-1966 or visit www.dancejourney.net.
PNC’s Black History Month Celebration on Thursday featured PhilaDanco’s founder Joan Myers Brown and author and Temple professor Brenda Dixon Gottschild telling the back story of how Brown mentored generations of African-American dancers. During the special luncheon held for 100 notable Philadelphians, both Brown and Gottschild discussed “Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina — A Biohistory of American Performance” (Palgrave Macmillan, $27) — the recently released book that explores how Brown’s personal and professional history reflects the hardships and the accomplishments of African Americans in the artistic and social developments through the 20th century and into the new millennium.
“Joan Myers Brown is a visionary, an entrepreneur, an educator, a mentor and a huge talent,” said J. William Mills III, regional president of PNC in Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. “An individual, who like Jackie Robinson, broke through the color barrier in an industry that’s all about talent and determination. Joan Myers Brown is one of the first African Americans to perform in an all-white ballet company. Like Jackie Robinson, she was subject to racial slurs, hatred — and none of that stopped her. If Blacks could not share the stage with whites, she would create a new stage, so she founded a dance school for Black students — and a dance company, PhilaDanco, which today is world renowned.”
The event was part of the PNC’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, which help create a more engaged workforce that is better able to support and serve the individuals, families, businesses and communities PNC serves. Earlier in the day, 300 PNC employees were captivated by a special performance by PhilaDanco as the dancers presented their signature blend of classical ballet, African classical and Afro-Caribbean traditions.
Brown’s career demonstrates the connection between performance, society and race when the concert dance tradition had no voice to tell its story. “None of the schools during that time would take Black dancers. After I danced for a while, my goal was to make sure Black youngsters got the opportunity. I had the privilege to dance with Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis, Cab Calloway and Billy Daniels — I could dance on my toes, so every time they would have a show I would be the girl that could dance on her toes — I thought that when I woke up one morning and said ‘this is not what I want to do with my life,’ so I went back to Philly. That’s how I started teaching, and that was 1960.”
During the post-talk discussion, several of the audience members marveled at the vivacious Brown, who gleefully shared that she was 80 years old. Gottschild opened her book and read a comment: “When God made her, they threw away the mold.”
For more information on PNC celebrations during Black History Month 2012, visit www.pnc.com/diversity.
The internationally acclaimed Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco) returns to the Kimmel Center with its annual spring concert, presenting “The Philadelphia Connection” from April 20 through April 22.
The program is a unique homage to the arts in the City of Brotherly Love, and will feature a revival of the 2000 abstract ballet by Dwight Rhoden titled “Tribute.” A salute to Philadelphia International Records, the high-energy piece is set to the celebrated soulful music of 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. The company will also present “Wake Up,” a newly commissioned work by home-grown hip-hop icon Rennie Harris. Choreographed over the past year, “Wake Up,” is the second piece created for the company by Harris, and “articulates that it is our communal ties that shape our own individual and unique identities.”
The program will also include “Suite en Bleu” by the late Philadelphia choreographer Gene Hill Sagan, remounted by Philadanco icon Kim Bears-Bailey, as well as Ron K. Brown’s “Gatekeepers.”
Philadanco recently performed at the closing ceremonies of the 7th Annual Dance Fest Skopje at the Macedonia Opera and Ballet Theater in Skopje, Macedonia. The appearance marked the first-ever performance by a major American dance company at Dance Fest Skopje. The company was invited to perform at the festival following its performance at the opening ceremonies of the prestigious Tanzmesse Festival in Dusseldorf, Germany, in August 2010.
“This festival is a unique opportunity to share Philadanco’s American and African-American aesthetics with an entirely new international audience, opening the door to improved cultural relations between the two countries,” said Joan Myers Brown, founder/executive artistic director of Philadanco. “It is an honor to serve as the first-ever major American dance company to perform in Macedonia, as well as at Dance Fest Skopje.”
For ticket information, call the Kimmel Center box office at (215) 893-1999 or visit www.kimmelcenter.org.
In ballet, relevé refers to the act of rising from any position to balance on one or both feet. The Philadelphia Dance Company’s Inagural Relevé gala on Thursday Oct. 25 celebrated the 43 year existence of the premier dance performance and education company. More than 200 guests were in attendance to the soiree, held at Vie on the Avenue of the Arts.
“I view Philadanco as a cultural treasure and a legacy organization,” said Philadanco emerita board chair Beverly Harper. “All of us bear some responsibility for making sure that Philadanco continues. Events like this are incredibly important because it allows Philadanco to showcase some of its extraordinary dancers, and for people to get dressed up, network and see the kind of support that Philadanco should have all year round.”
Across the nation and around the world, Philadanco is celebrated for its innovation, creativity and preservation of predominantly African-American traditions in dance. Earlier this month, Philadanco performed at The Joyce in New York City with two lively pieces set to music from two soul legends: “Moan” backed by Nina Simone songs, and “Suite Otis” to Otis Redding tunes.
“We’ve got a new ballet by one of my former students Matthew Rushing, and it’s called ‘Moan’ to the music of Nina Simone,”said Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown. “We previewed it last week in New York, and everybody loved it.”
Billed as “a night of dance, dining, and celebration,” Relevé brought out the stars of the Philadelphia universe. In addition to enjoying a sumptuous spread of dinner treats, guests were treated to the sounds of Bill Jolly and virtuoso dance performances.
“Philadanco is an anchor and a staple not only in the Philadelphia community, but Philadanco now really enjoys the privilege of serving as an ambassador to the world,” said Angela M. Brown, Philadanco board chair. “That would not exist without people like Joan Myers Brown, who identified a need and stepped up and meant it. And now we are hoping that the Philadelphia community that has come to enjoy this staple known as Philadanco and appreciate the benefits of having an ambassador such as Philadanco represent them to the world will step up. We also need to break down some of the barriers a lot of no-profits art organizations are facing, not just Philadanco or Black arts organizations. We all have to step up and make a personal investment, write our own checks, serve on the boards, attend the galas, go to the performances and extend an invitation to those even outside of our own communities so that we diversify the audience base, diversify the donor base, and Philadanco stays around for a very, very long time.”
The achievements of Brown and other trailblazers were recognized, and organizers underscored the message of creating a better world through arts and culture. “I would say I’ve grown up at Philadanco,” remarked event chair Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who recalled her start as a 22-year-old dancer with the company. “When you consider that Philadanco has grown from a grassroots, community-based, in-the-hood organization at 63rd and Market to a new building there at 40th and Market where many of us bought a brick to make that building real. And now, 42 years later, it is still standing. We in the African-American community really do have a responsibility to see that Philadanco not only survives, but that it thrives. Corporate Philadelphia has done its part, but ultimately it’s on us.”
While the gala’s proceeds benefited the dance company, its founder insisted that the Philadelphia African-American community can — and should— do more. “I keep bemoaning the fact that Black folk don’t support us like they should,” said Brown. “If they want us to be around, they’ve got to be around for us.”