“Girls that have been with the company a long time are called Danco Dolls” said Joan Myers Brown, Founder and Artistic Director of The Philadelphia Dance Company, (better known by its shortened name ‘Philadanco’ or ‘Danco’). Through Philadanco and its affiliate junior dance companies and schools Ms. Brown has nurtured the careers of countless men and women, particularly African Americans. Among the list of successful alumni are Lee Daniels – director of the ‘Empire’ television series, Leslie Odom Jr. – star of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, Hope Boykin of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre company and Anthony Burrell, who has choreographed for various celebrities including Beyoncé.
In 2020 Philadanco will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and I’m proud to say I participated in one of their summer dance programs many years ago, which provided excellent exposure for me as a young dancer. I recently had the chance to visit the Philadanco dance studio again, and after a peek at the late night rehearsal underway, I had a lovely chat with Ms. Brown in her office.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, “I actually didn’t get seriously started with dance until I was probably about 18 years old” said Ms. Brown. “My gym teacher in my latter years of high school invited me to participate in her dance club, and at that time we were in the height of segregation; you’re talking about 1948/49. I was the only black girl in the group and looked down upon; and first it was a challenge but then I fell in love with dance.” She hasn’t looked back since, and after knowing only classical ballet for years she discovered a dance school that was popular amongst the black community, and it was there that she learned the Dunham technique and took classes such as tap and jazz.
However the reality of segregation led her to shift her focus from performing to teaching. “There weren’t opportunities. There weren’t any blacks in classical ballet when I was graduating from high school, so I started teaching and then I just loved to teach.” Although in recent years she has enjoyed teaching little children because “they’re like sponges – they eat it up and spit it out”, when I asked if she continues to teach today she chuckled and said “Not anymore. When I start teaching everybody gets ill. Nobody wants to take my class.” Her sense of humor continued when I asked whether she still dances: “Oh no, I’m a ‘has been’. I has been a dancer but I’m not dancing. I think most of my movement is with us having 3 floors to the studio; I’m up and down the steps 50 times a day so that’s my activity.” I laughed.
Her Philadelphia School of Dance Arts, which opened in 1960, was the forerunner of Philadanco. “In 1970 the kids I had taught from the age of 6 to 7 were now 16, 17 looking for opportunities to perform; and again, it was the time of segregation, so I thought I’d start a company where they could get additional training and move on out of Philadelphia. But they stayed with me for a long time, and when they moved out they moved into the Ailey company; and still 5 of our dancers are in the Ailey company now.” One of her former Danco Girls, Heather Benson, now lives in London (UK) where she teaches the Horton technique – the essence of the Philadanco dance style. “I think the technique that suits my dancers best is the Horton technique” said Ms. Brown. “Even though they take Graham, Dunham, tap, hip-hop, it’s a Horton-based company. I don’t know if that’s because of the influence of the Ailey company, because I used to bring the teachers here from the Ailey school, but Lester Horton’s dance training is very good for black dancers.”
At the time of the interview Philadanco had recently performed at New York City’s Apollo Theater as part of an Aids Healthcare Foundation event hosted by Debbie Allen. Their home season had come to a close and several new dancers were learning the repertoire for their 2019 tour, which began last month. Philadanco has toured all over the world, including to my home island of Bermuda, where Ms. Brown has fond memories, particularly due to her special relationship with local dance teachers including Suzette Harvey, Keya Perinchief (my first dance teacher, as a toddler) and the late Louise Jackson. In April ‘Danco’ will perform “Dance Philly Style” at The Kimmel Centre theater in Philadelphia, where they’re the resident modern dance company.
And ‘modern’ they certainly are, as the choreography exhibited in Danco productions often has a hip twist; appealing to a more diverse crowd than the average ballet. For example, rather than performing The Nutcracker over the Christmas period, which is commonly staged worldwide, Ms. Brown said they’ve previously put on a show called the “Xmas Philes”, which is based on popular Christmas songs. “Nutcrackers and fairytales for me are ‘played out’, as they say. Sleeping beauty, Cinderella – you know, come on. That’s white folks’ stuff”, she said frankly.
As Ms. Brown expressed, “being black in America does have its problems”, and in addition to the blatant racial barriers in the dance world she said also challenging is the fact that many people undervalue the art form. “Dance is at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to funding opportunities, touring, everything”, and “a lot of dancers now are looking for lucrative positions: Broadway, Las Vegas; they want to make money.” She noted that there’s also often an unnecessary discrepancy about what’s considered ‘good dance’ when in reality “everybody dances, everybody loves to dance; even if it’s just the ‘bear hug’, which my son in law does, and he’s not a dancer but that makes him happy.”
Furthermore, “parents are a problem sometimes, because they’re into the show-off aspect of it” she explained. “Very few of them realize the benefits of training: ‘why isn’t my child in the front row?’, ‘why doesn’t my child have a solo?’ or ‘why is she in that?’, you know, instead of saying that they learn to work together, they learn to respect each other, they learn to take care of their bodies, they learn to be focused. There’s so much you learn from dance that people don’t realize.” That kind of mentality can also prevent parents from recognizing the importance of ensuring that their children are receiving the quality teaching they need, particularly if they may want a future in dance, she stressed. For those who do want to pursue dance professionally: “my main thing I always tell everyone is to make sure you get good training, because so many dance schools now just do routines and tricks and they don’t bother with the skill. It’s like trying to do algebra without math; if you don’t have the basics of good training your career is not going to last. You might get your leg up high and do a few leaps but it it’s not going to last.”
Also vital for a successful dance career is “an awareness of your body because that’s your instrument, and taking good care of it: eating, sleeping, being drug-free”; and “you’ve got to be able to work with people, work in a group, have perseverance and discipline”, particularly when performing with a company. When assessing prospective Danco members during auditions Ms. Brown said, “I always say I look for magic. I look for someone who’s looking to just dance; who’s hungry for dance but who’s also well trained and skilled, but has something that catches your eye. And usually there are 4 of us in the audition process and we all end up liking the same people.” Over the years Ms. Brown has had the privilege of witnessing countless dancers blossom under her guidance. “Some call me JB and then the ones that have been in my school call me Aunt Joan; and some call me Ms. Brown – according to how long they’ve been around.”
In addition to her work with Philadanco and its affiliate junior companies and schools, Ms. Brown is the Patron of the Leicester (UK)-based organization Serendipity’s “Lets Dance International Frontiers” dance festival, as well as the Founder of the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD). “It’s like homecoming when all the black dancers get together” she said of IABD, which she informed me will have its annual conference in Philadelphia next year.
She has had a remarkable, trailblazing career, and in 2013 she had the honour of meeting former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama when she was awarded the 2012 National Medal of The Arts for her contribution to the arts. Looking back on her career she said “I don’t think I’ll live to see another black president in my lifetime, and to have him give an award for the work that I do I think that was the highlight.” However she said another career highlight has been “watching my dancers get a thunderous round of applause, and people hollering ‘bravo’ and giving standing ovations; that’s quite thrilling.”
Ms. Brown would love to see Philadanco continue to thrive, even once she has retired, but unfortunately they’ve been unable to secure funding for their succession plans thus far. “I’m hoping that we can get enough money to make sure that there’s a succession plan in place so that I can spend some time on the beach with my grand kids” she said with a smile. Although if it doesn’t work out that way she said she is thankful for everything that Philadanco has been able to achieve throughout its existence, and said there’s a life cycle for everything. “If it doesn’t carry on I think we’ve had a good run. We’ve made a good impression on what we do, and we’ve changed lives and given opportunities for many, many people. So, I don’t feel bad if it doesn’t carry on but I feel that it should.”
I couldn’t agree more, particularly reflecting on the excitement I felt when entering the Philadanco dance studio for the first time as a summer program participant, and the outstanding Danco performances I’ve attended during the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts . I made sure to point out however, that my dance skills are a long shot from where they used to be (chuckling), to which she reassuringly responded, dismissing my claim: “once a dancer always a dancer, don’t even try it.”
Wondering what ingredients Ms. Brown thinks make the perfect smoothie?: “Well I’m not a smoothie person…I’m a milk shake person” she said. “So I guess I would like, lets see…uh…I don’t like yogurt…so maybe figure out a way to do it with ice cream too; so it’s not a milk shake but it’s not a smoothie, maybe that’s something we can capitalize on huh.” We giggled.