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Joan Myers Brown - More Resources

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Joan Myers Brown (b. December 25, 1931- )

by Dawn Lille

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; additionally, if you lived in Philadelphia and were black, you were not permitted to try on shoes in a store, and you sat in the balcony of movie theaters.

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 Antony Tudor when he came to teach for the Philadelphia Ballet Guild, the first desegregated ballet class in the city.

She started performing in recitals, the Philadelphia Cotillion Balls and the local black cabaret circuit, then in clubs throughout the country and Canada. By 1959 she was dancing in Atlantic City with Larry Steele’s revue, often as the featured ballerina en pointe, and also began to choreograph. 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.

It was this realization and a desire to offer the best possible training to students in her own community that led her to open her school in Philadelphia in 1960 and to form a company in 1970. During 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 professional opportunities for the dancers she had educated. She also saw it as an outlet and training ground for talented black choreographers. 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 to its dancers. 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.

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 cofounded, and has served on numerous national and state panels and boards.

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.”


Dawn Lille, trained in ballet, modern dance and labananalysis, has worked with dancers and actors as a performer and rehearsal coach. She has taught internationally, headed the graduate program in dance research and reconstruction at City College and taught dance history at Juilliard for fourteen years. Dr. Lille has written two books, chapters in five books and over one hundred articles in encyclopedias, numerous periodicals and Art Times.

 


 

Archives

The Philadelphia Dance Company [Philadanco] records are held by Temple University Special Collections:

            http://library.temple.edu/scrc/philadelphia-dance-company

The bulk of the collection consists of performance programs, photographs, marketing materials, and publicity.  Organizational records are limited, and include scattered minutes of the board of directors, correspondence, two annual reports, and a development plan.

Books and Articles

Reviews of Philadanco and articles on Joan Myers Brown may be found in the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City:

            https://catalog.nypl.org

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. Joan Myers Brown and the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina. A Biohistory of American Performers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

This book uses Brown as a pivot, around which the author discusses the social history of black performance in America. It includes an annotated chronological resume of her life and a record of Philadanco’s home seasons, 1975-2010, listing works performed and their choreographers.

Web Resources

The school and company have an extensive website: 

www.philadanco.org.

Moving Image

YouTube contains examples of Philadanco in performance and a short interview with Brown:

Interview with Joan Myers Brown in promotional video for Philadanco:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khNNeN00Asc

Interview with Joan Myers Brown and Brenda Dixon Gottschild by Walter Rutledge:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxGFKdI6jyo

New York premiere performance of Cottonwool, 2012:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddjx2nNh8-A