Moving Over: A Powerhouse of Black Dance Is Retiring (Mostly)

Rushing to our Zoom interview from an in-person audition at the Philadanco studios, Joan Myers Brown opened the conversation by making me laugh. She asked for a reminder of what we were doing and then said, “What an honor, you want to talk about me — only thing I usually talk about is Philadanco.”

Myers Brown is the keeper of all things Black dance, and Philadanco (or, the Philadelphia Dance Company) is the troupe she founded in 1970. Now, after more than 50 years, she’s “moving over,” as she calls it, stepping back but not quite stepping away from the daily work of running the company.

At 89 (she turns 90 on Christmas Day), she is full of energy, and her memory is impeccable. Given the floor, she will share her love of dance, especially Black dance, for which she has been a champion and an institution builder.

True to her Philadelphia roots, in 1960 she founded the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts, for African American children; then Philadanco in 1970; in 1988, the International Conference of Black Dance Companies; and then in 1991, the International Association of Blacks in Dance (I.A.B.D.), which supports the Black dance community through gatherings, presentations, education and career guidance.

Of course, none of this existed when Myers Brown started studying ballet at 7 with Essie Marie Dorsey, whose school catered to Black children. (Dorsey, who passed for Spanish, had studied ballet with whites.) At 17, in the segregated 1940s, Myers Brown got the bug to become a ballerina from a white teacher, Virginia Lingenfelder, and was the first and only Black student in Lingenfelder’s ballet club.

Later, she studied at the Ballet Guild, where she was again the only Black student, and was spotted there by the British choreographer Antony Tudor, who invited her to take his class. “He was coming from England, so he didn’t have that American prejudice stuff,” Myers Brown said. “He taught me like I was the same as the others and not like an intruder.”

She never became a professional ballerina. “Other than Janet Collins, Blacks were not hired at that time,” she said, referring to the first African American prima ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera. But because of Tudor, Myers Brown performed in a community production of Michel Fokine’s “Les Sylphides” with the Ballet Guild and the Philadelphia Orchestra. At 19, Tudor encouraged her to move to New York; instead, she commuted to study with the dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham. “I would’ve been afraid to go to New York and live alone,” Myers Brown said.

She became a successful revue dancer and seized every opportunity to take class on her travels. “I read every book on ballet and dance, and then I chose to teach because I didn’t get the opportunities I wanted,” she said. “That’s when I started my school and tried to teach what I remembered.”

The Black dance community reveres her, and the world has been noticing. She was the subject of a 2011 book, “Joan Myers Brown and the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina,” by Brenda Dixon Gottschild. And in 2012, President Obama presented her with the National Medal of the Arts.

I met Myers Brown, or Aunt Joan as she is known to those close to her, when we were both instructors at Howard University in the early 1990s. Like me, those who’ve walked alongside her know that she is a powerful force, a leader who has set the tone for Black dance organizations to follow. And though Myers Brown is stepping back from her role at Philadanco, make no mistake: She still goes to the office, and is very involved.

When talking to Myers Brown, you bring your best because her presence demands it. She is always dressed to the nines, 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 talk. I did, but they flowed organically because Aunt Joan made it so easy. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

So, what made you decide it was time to step away?

Guess, just guess! I’ll be 90 years old. I have four dance companies, two dance schools and six grandkids. I’ve been working 15-hour days for 50 years, plus my school will be 60. I’ve given enough of my life to this, but I don’t own it.

What do you mean you don’t own it?

Founder’s syndrome. After a while, the founder don’t mean anything because the company and organization have outgrown them.

How are you feeling about moving over, as you call it?

I’ve settled on moving over, and I appointed Kim Bears-Bailey as artistic director. Now I have to let her know it’s OK to do what she thinks and let her make mistakes. But I need a managing director, someone who is committed to moving something other than their own aesthetic forward.

Kim was first at Philadanco, in 1981, as a dancer. Did she make an impression on you back then?

She did. She was one of those girls that I don’t think ballet companies would have liked. You know how they do us when we are Black and we just don’t look the part.

She wanted it, and was willing to put forth the work, and I said, “Why don’t you audition for Ailey?” She said, “Everything I need is here.”

Was there a search for an artistic director?

Not artistic, managing. I’ve had three white girls come into my organization with all the qualifications, but there was a sensitivity chip about Blackness missing. They have to think differently about how they treat Black people and know what we need. When I was looking for a development director, I hired a company of three ladies.

Are they Black?

No. White. I had to school them.

Does Kim run the school also?

Well, the school is not part of the company. The first 10 years the company was housed in the school, but when we purchased the building, we reversed the roles. The school pays rent to the company. I kept the school for profit so I would be guaranteed an income as a single parent.

You know, the String Theory School wants to build a new location, a charter school, and call it the Joan Myers Brown School of the Arts.

Wait, they’re naming a school after you?

Yes, and they want me to develop a curriculum, so I put Ali [Willingham, artistic director of Danco3] there because he teaches the way I like people to teach — know the craft, break down the movement, demand growth and not show off. Our youth are caught up in getting the applause and not learning the craft, so when I find the ones that really want to learn, they have someplace for classes and performing opportunities.

The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t new to you, is it?

I experienced that in 1962, 1988 and 1995. Every time white folks in charge throw money out there and say, “Y’all got to help Black people,” they help us, but when the money’s gone, they’re gone. Have you noticed how every ad in Dance Magazine has a Black person? It’s like they are saying, “Look, I got one!”

Did you envision I.A.B.D. conferences as a home base for the Black dance community?

You know, the first few conferences we were a mess, but we were happy to be together. Cleo [Parker Robinson] is from Denver; Jeraldyne [Blunden] was Dayton; Lula [Washington], Los Angeles; and Ann [Williams], from Dallas. And each time we learned something about our own organizations, about others doing the same thing, and how we can help each other. Mikki Shepard pulled us together, and people said we set the plate for DanceUSA. I was on the board of DanceUSA then. I said, “I got to get away from here and start my own thing because this ain’t helping Black people at all.”

The younger members want to ignore the things we learned, and their opinions are valid, but I say experience teaches you something. I.A.B.D. was a gathering to bring us together and share stuff, now it’s a full-fledged service organization.

Do you miss the early gatherings?

It wasn’t like, “Girl, you got to come,” but more like, “let’s be together.” And when Jeraldyne died, we were a mess. Debbie [Blunden-Diggs] is stepping up to the plate now.

The Philadanco family is huge, isn’t it?

We have a saying: You “gon” — without the “e” — but you’ll be back. A girl from my summer program told her mom, “I want to go back to Philadelphia because they give the training I need.” And her mother said, “I used to be in Philadanco 25 years ago, I’m going back with you.” She moved back, and I put her in charge of my minis.

I’ll give you another example: My first company was football players. I had no big boys in the school, saw them playing at my old high school and asked them to be in a show. They were more interested in the girls at first and refused to wear tights. I couldn’t pay them, but the Negro Trade Union Leadership Council was paying Black boys to learn trades. I told them to go in the morning, learn the trade, get that check, and then come for class at night, and they caught the bug. One of the boys owns a company and does my renovations now.

Everybody can’t teach or choreograph; I encourage all of my dancers to have a second career so that when you stop dancing you can do something else.

What do you wish for?

Well, I’m wishing that people would understand that I need to shore up this organization. So, if I drop dead, the organization won’t be saying, “Aunt Joan ain’t here, what are we going to do?” I want them to say, “Do this, and take care of that.”

You always have a Plan B, so what is it?

I like living alone. I like being single. I had three husbands, I’m fine. My Plan B is to do nothing, but I realized that people pay me to talk so I might do some more of that.

Did I forget anything?

No. Well, yes, I do what I do because it needs to be done. And I believe in helping people that need help, and if they don’t pay back, it’s OK. The last thing I can say is that being Black in America is being Black in America, and it ain’t easy.

Charmaine Patricia Warren performs, teaches, produces and writes about dance.

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