20 Years, 20 Stories: Joan Myers Brown and PHILADANCO!

Sep 19, 2017 2 months ago

The building that houses PHILADANCO, the West Philadelphia dance institution, isn’t terribly hard to find. Need a street sign to guide you? Search for a small block just north of Market Street with the name PHILADANCO Way. Still lost? Look for the brown brick building stamped with PHILADANCO in big white letters. You’ll know you’re in the right place if you can hear the sounds of rhythmic music inside; listen closely and you might make out alternating thumps and whispers of dance slippers on wooden floors. 

Inside PHILADANCO’s headquarters you may find adults from any of the four companies rehearsing for an upcoming show or tour; students as young as four learning the basics of dance; or the founder of PHILADANCO, Joan Myers Brown, watching over the enterprise she founded nearly 50 years ago.

Although in her 80s, Joan Myers Brown still has a dancer’s figure—lean, lithe, and graceful. She limps a little these days, complaining about arthritis, but it’s not hard to imagine her springing up to perform arabesques or pliés. 

“The last time I danced was probably 1962,” Joan begins. She means professionally, because she’s certainly danced during her fifty plus years as an instructor. Joan grew up in West Philadelphia at 47th and Woodland, and first took dance classes when she was six years old at a school run by Essie Marie Dorsey, whose school was the only one to accept black children in the 1940s. Joan didn’t last long in her tap class, however. “The reason I stopped was because I lost my ballet slippers the first week and my mother said she didn’t have $1.50 for another pair of shoes.”

Joan may not have returned to dance if not for a gym class at West Philly High. Her gym instructor, Virginia Lingenfelder, had been a ballet dancer with the Littlefield Ballet Company, which was headquartered in Philadelphia. In her gym class, students learned the basics of dance, and Ms. Lingenfelder noticed Joan’s natural ability. She told Joan that she should be a dancer, and invited her to attend an after-school ballet club. 

“When I walked into ballet club and there was nobody of color in there except for me, I had no idea what was going on,” Joan remembers. At the time she couldn’t attend any of the major dance schools in the city because they were still segregated. Joan, however, had a white friend who was attending Littlefield. “She taught me in the morning, so when I got to the ballet club in the afternoon, I kind of knew what I was doing.” 

In 1948, Joan moved on to study with Antony Tudor, an instructor from England. “He was the first teacher I knew of in the city who permitted black youngsters to take classes.” As the first black student in Tudor’s class, things weren’t easy for Joan, but she made the most of it. “If he used to teach something with two dancers, none of the men wanted to dance with me, so he was always my partner. So I learned from the master!” 

Tudor encouraged her to study ballet in New York City and Joan earned a scholarship to the Katherine Dunham school in Manhattan. Joan had dreams of being like Janet Collins, who broke ground as the first black ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera Company. But things didn’t work out that way. “Girls didn’t leave home then,” Joan explains. “They either went to college or got married.” She opted for the latter, and when her husband was drafted, she became a touring nightclub dancer for nine years. 

As her professional dancing career wound down, Joan decided her next step was to begin teaching, inspired, in part, by her gratitude to Ms. Lingenfelder for introducing her to dance. “There were lots of opportunities that fell in my lap, so I wanted more opportunities to fall in others’ laps.” She opened the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts in 1960 at 52nd and Walnut, where the majority of students were African American. 

Joan taught dance at her school for nearly a decade before a problem arose. “The youngsters I’d started teaching when they were six or seven years old were now sixteen and seventeen, and they were asking ‘What are we going to do with this stuff?” Joan sent them to Pennsylvania ballets but they didn’t get accepted. Joan was stuck with a group of girls who could dance, but didn’t have a place to do it. So in 1970, Philadelphia Dance Company, or PHILADANCO, was born as a way to give opportunities to dancers of color. 

She had an easy time building the company. She didn’t need to hold auditions because she used the kids she had trained, including boys she recruited from the West Philadelphia High School football team. She had access to more dancers and more funding because there was less competition in those days, compared to now where the arts are a crowded market. Joan was able to build PHILADANCO into a legitimate, respected company that became known for the fine training of its dancers and the high spirit and energy of its performances. 

Before long, PHILADANCO was touring first the country, and then the world. “The UK, Budapest, Italy, Amsterdam,” Joan says, listing a few countries she has visited with the troupe. “I think we’ve been to every little town in Germany.” Joan enjoys touring because there’s so much appreciation from international audiences. “A lot of the towns we’ve been to, we’re the first American company [they’ve seen]—not just black company. They see so much on television that’s negative about African Americans, so for them to see young men and women dancing…it’s very good.”

In the nearly 50 years since its formation, PHILADANCO has turned out a high number of successful alumni. Some went on to the Dance Theater of Harlem, a few joined the prestigious Alvin Ailey company, one started an Aboriginal dance group called Bangarra, and many have gone on to choreograph for PHILADANCO or other companies. Recently a former member was on Broadway in Wicked

In 2001, PHILADANCO became the resident dance company at The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and next spring PHILADANCO will celebrate dancers Joan has trained in Success Stories, a production that will feature four ballets choreographed by former members. 

Although Joan has had opportunities to leave West Philadelphia behind, she has chosen to stay in the neighborhood she loves, and continues to give back in large and small ways. When PHILADANCO occupied its current location in the 1980's there were 28 empty houses nearby, so Joan decided to purchase a few with money from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and turn them into affordable artist housing. Each year the Kimmel celebrates PHILADANCO Day, where hundreds of children from throughout the city come see the company perform. Joan has worked with Drexel’s Dornsife Center, sent dancers to local schools to teach, partnered with the African American Museum, served on the board of University City District, and she gives out 75 scholarships to local dancers every year. 

Joan believes it is her mission to give more opportunities to dancers of color. “That’s still my objective,” she says. “I want to make sure my dancers are well trained, well rehearsed. Alvin Ailey will say that when PHILADANCO dancers come in, they’re ready. They know how to comb their hair, they know how to put on their makeup, how to rehearse, how to be on time. It’s all the things we instill in dancers.”

Joan’s amazing career has not gone unnoticed. She’s received awards from Philadelphia’s African American Museum and The Philadelphia Tribune, membership to the Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia Magazine named her one of the Top Ten Best Philadelphians in 2012. 

Joan’s most notable honor, however, almost didn’t happen. In 2012, with her company about to leave for an international trip, she got a phone call inviting her to Washington, DC to receive an award. “I can’t go, I’m on my way to Chile,” Joan said. But when she learned she was going to be honored by President Obama, she quickly changed her plans to attend a ceremony in which she received a National Medal of Arts, given as the nation’s highest civic honor for excellence in the arts. President Obama cited Brown 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 dance communities.”

“I think my kids were more excited than me,” Joan says, describing her daughter snapping a photo in the White House bathroom. Even though Joan calls the occasion the highlight of her career, she missed the after-party, electing instead to join her dancers in South America. 

When asked what makes her most proud, it’s not the accolades, the book written about her, or the trophy cases stuffed with awards in PHILADANCO’s office. No, for Joan Myers Brown, she says what makes her most proud is to “stand in the back of the theater and see people stand up and applaud the dancers,” something she’s been able to appreciate for almost 50 years. 

To support PHILADANCO see them at one of their upcoming shows at The Kimmel Center, or make a donation to help them continue offering opportunities to dancers of color. 

 

 

 

 

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