From a face-to-face audition at Philadanco Studios to a zoom interview, Joan Myers Brown made me laugh and started a conversation. She asked to remind her of what we were doing and said, “What an honor, you want to talk about me. I’m always talking about Philadanco.”
Myers Brown is the keeper of all Black Dance, and Philadelphia (or Philadelphia Dance Company) is a group she founded in 1970. Now, more than 50 years later, she is “moving”. However, it is not completely separated from the daily work of running a company.
At 89 (90 on Christmas day), she is full of energy and her memory is perfect. Given the floor, she shares her love for dance, especially black dance, where she is the champion and institutionalist.
True to her Philadelphia roots, in 1960 she founded the Philadelphia Dance Arts School for African-American children. Then, in 1970, Philadanco. 1988, International Conference of Black Dance Company. And in 1991, the International Dance Black Church (IABD) gathered to support the black dance community through presentations, education and career guidance.
Of course, this didn’t exist when Myers Brown started studying ballet with Essie Marie Dorsey at school for black children when she was seven. (Dorcy, who passed Spanish, learned ballet in white.) At the age of 17, in the 1940s when she was isolated, Myers Brown got a bug from her white teacher Virginia Ringenfelder to become a ballerina, and Lingen. He was Felder’s first and only black student. Ballet club.
Later she studied in the Ballet Guild, where she was once again the only black student, where she was discovered by the English choreographer Antony Tudor, who invited her to class. “He came from England, so there was no American prejudice,” said Myers Brown. “He taught me that I am like everyone else and not like an intruder.”
She didn’t become a professional ballerina. “With the exception of Janet Collins, no blacks were hired at the time,” she said at the Metropolitan Opera, referring to the first African-American prima ballerina. However, thanks to the Tudor dynasty, Myers Brown co-starred with the Ballet Guild and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the community production of Mikhail Fokin’s “Les Sylphides.” At the age of 19, Tudor advised her to move to New York. Instead, she commute to study with dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham. “I would have been afraid to go to New York and live alone,” said Myers Brown.
She became a successful review dancer and seized every opportunity to take classes on a trip. “I read all the books on ballet and dance, but I didn’t get the chance I wanted, so I chose to teach,” she said. “At that time, I started school and tried to teach what I remember.”
The black dance community is in awe of her and the world is in the spotlight. She was the subject of the 2011 book “Joan Myers Brown and the Bold Hope of the Black Ballerina” by Brenda Dixon Gottschild. And in 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts.
While working as two instructors at Howard University in the early 1990s, I met Myers Brown, or Aunt Joan, known to those near her. People like me who walked with her know that she is a powerful force and a leader who has set the tone that the black dance organization should follow. And while Myers Brown is away from her role in Philadanco, there’s no doubt. She still goes to the office and is very involved.
When you talk to Myers Brown, you do your best because her presence demands it. She always wears nine clothes, but her elegance is balanced by her lack of pretension and her quick, sometimes sharp tongue.
“You didn’t ask me any questions,” she said near the end of our story. I did, but Aunt Joan made it so easy that they flowed organically. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation.
NS: So why did you decide it was time for you to leave?
A: Guess, guess! I am 90 years old. I have 4 dance companies, 2 dance schools and 6 grandchildren. I have been working 15 hours for 50 years and in addition my school is 60 years old. I have devoted enough life to this, but I don’t own it.
Q: What does it mean to not own it?
A: Founder’s Syndrome. After a while, the founders don’t make any sense, as the companies and organizations have surpassed them.
Q: How do you feel about moving, as you call it?
A: I decided to move and appointed Kim Bears Bailey as artistic director. Now I have to let her know that it’s okay to do what she thinks and make her make a mistake. But I need a managing director, someone who is committed to advancing something other than my aesthetics.
Q: Kim first came to Philadanco as a dancer in 1981. Did she impress you at the time?
A: She did. She was one of the girls who didn’t like the ballet company. You know how they do us when we are black, and we just don’t see that part.
She wanted it, so she was happy to publish her work. I said, “Why don’t you audition for Ailee?” She said, “Everything I need is here.”
Q: Did you look for an artistic director?
A: It’s not artistic, it’s managed. I put three white girls in my organization with all qualifications, but there was no sensitivity chip about blackness. They need to think differently about how to treat blacks and know what we need. When I was looking for a development director, I hired a company of three women.
A: No. It’s white. I had to send them to school.
Q: Does Kim also run a school?
A: Well, the school is not part of the company. The company was in school for the first 10 years, but reversed its role when it bought the building. The school pays the company rent. I kept the school for profit, so my income as a single parent was guaranteed.
String Theory School wants to build a new location, the Charter School, and call it Joan Myers Brown School of the Arts.
Q: Wait, do they name the school after you?
A: Yes, I was asked to develop a curriculum, so I placed Ali (Willingham, Artistic Director of Danco3) there. Because he teaches the way I like to teach people. show off. Our young people are applauded and obsessed with not learning crafts, so when they find someone they really want to learn, they have a place for lessons and playing opportunities.
Q: Isn’t the Black Lives Matter move new to you?
A: I experienced it in 1962, 1988, and 1995. Every time the white man in charge throws money and says “I have to help the black man”, they help us, but when the money runs out they disappear. Did you notice that every ad in Dance Magazine has a black man? It’s like saying, “Hey, I got it!”
Q: Did you envision the IABD conference as a hub for the black dance community?
A: As you know, the first few meetings were confusing, but I was happy to be with you.Cleo [Parker Robinson] I’m from Denver. Jeraldyne (Branden) was Dayton. Lula (Washington), Los Angeles; Anne (Williams) from Dallas. And every time we learn something about our own organization, about others doing the same thing, and how we help each other. Mikey Shepherd attracted us and people said we set up the Dance USA plate. At that time, I was a board member of Dance USA. I said, “This doesn’t help black people at all, so I had to leave here and start my own.”
Young members want to ignore what we have learned and their opinions are valid, but I say the experience tells you something. The IABD was a gathering for us to gather and share, but it is now a full-fledged service organization.
Q: Do you miss the early gatherings?
A: It was more like “let’s be together” rather than “girl, you have to come”. And when Geraldine died, we were confused.Debbie [Blunden-Diggs] We are currently stepping up to the plate.
Q: The Philadanko family is huge, isn’t it?
A: There’s a saying: you’re “gon” -no “e” -but you’re back. A girl from my summer program told her mother, “I want to go back to Philadelphia because she will give me the training I need.” And her mother said, “I was in Philadanco 25 years ago, I’ll be back with you.” She came back and I left her my mini.
Let me give you another example. My first company was a soccer player. I didn’t have a big boy at school, so I saw them playing in my old high school and asked them to attend the show. They were initially more interested in girls and refused to wear tights. I couldn’t pay them, but the Negro Trade Union Leadership Council was paying black boys to learn trade. I told them to go in the morning to learn trade, receive the check, and come to class at night, and they caught the bug. One of the boys runs the company and is now doing my home remodeling.
No one can teach or choreograph. I encourage all dancers to have a second career so they can do something else when they quit dancing.
A: Well, I want people to understand that I need to strengthen this organization. So even if I die, the organization won’t say “Aunt Joan isn’t here, what should I do?” I want them to say, “Do this and take good care of it.”
Q: You always have Plan B, what is it?
A: I like living alone. I like being single. I had three husbands, I’m fine. My Plan B is to do nothing, but I noticed that people are paying to talk to me.
Q: Did you forget something?
A: No. Well, I need to do that, so I do what I do. And I believe in helping those in need, and it’s okay if they don’t repay. The last thing I can say is that being black in America is being black in America, and it’s not easy.
Moving: Black Dance Powers Retired (Mostly) (Copy) | Entertainment
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