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 what we were doing and said, “What an honor, you mean me. I’m still 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. Today, over 50 years later, she “moves.” However, it is not completely separate from the day-to-day work of running a business.
At 89 (90 on Christmas Day), she is bursting with energy and her memory is perfect. Given the floor, she shares her love for dance, especially black dance, of which she is the champion and institutionalist.
True to her roots in Philadelphia, in 1960 she founded the Philadelphia Dance Arts School for African-American children. Then, in 1970, Philadanco. 1988, International Conference of the Black Dance Company. And in 1991, the International Dance Black Church (IABD) came together to support the black dance community through presentations, education, and career counseling.
Of course, that didn’t exist when Myers Brown began studying ballet with Essie Marie Dorsey at the school for black children at the age of seven. (Dorcy, who switched Spanish, learned ballet in white.) At the age of 17 in the 1940s, while in isolation, Myers Brown had a bug from her white teacher Virginia Ringenfelder to become a ballerina, and Lingen. He was Felder’s first and only black student. Dance club.
Later, she studies at the Ballet Guild, where she is again the only black student, where she is discovered by the English choreographer Antony Tudor, who invites her to class. “He was from England so there was no American prejudice,” Myers Brown said. “He taught me that I am like everyone else and not like an intruder.”
She did not become a professional ballerina. “With the exception of Janet Collins, no black was hired at the time,” she told the Metropolitan Opera, referring to the first African-American prima ballerina. However, thanks to the Tudor dynasty, Myers Brown performed with the Ballet Guild and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the community production of “Les Sylphides” by Mikhail Fokin. At the age of 19, Tudor advised him to move to New York. Instead, she commutes to study with dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham. “I would have been scared to go to New York and live on my own,” Myers Brown said.
She became a successful revue dancer and took every opportunity to take classes while traveling. “I read all the books on ballet and dance, but I didn’t have the luck 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 Daring Hope of the Black Ballerina” by Brenda Dixon Gottschild. And in 2012, President Barack Obama awarded him 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 close to her. People like me who have 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 a long way from his role in Philadanco, there is no doubt about it. She always goes to the office and is very involved.
When you talk to Myers Brown you are doing your best because his presence demands it. She always wears nine clothes, but her elegance is counterbalanced by her unpretentiousness and her quick, sometimes sharp tongue.
“You didn’t ask me any questions,” she said towards the end of our story. I did, but Aunt Joan made it so easy it turned out organically. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation.
NOT. : So why did you decide it was time to go?
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’ve devoted enough life to it, but I don’t own it.
Q: What does it mean not to own it?
A: Founder’s syndrome. After a while, the founders no longer make sense, as companies and organizations have overtaken them.
Q: How do you feel about the move, 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 CEO, someone who is committed to advancing something other than my aesthetic.
Q: Kim 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 to us when we’re 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: Have you looked for an art director?
A: It’s not artistic, it’s successful. I put three white girls in my organization with all the qualifications, but there was no sensitivity chip about the dark. They have to think differently about how to treat black people and know what we need. When I was looking for a development manager, 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 business. The company was in school for the first 10 years, but reversed its role when it bought the building. The school pays the rent for the business. I kept 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, are they giving the school your name?
A: Yes, I was asked to develop a program, so I put Ali (Willingham, artistic director of Danco3) there. Because he teaches like I love to teach people. show off. Our young people are applauded and obsessed with not learning the craft, so when they find someone they really want to learn, they have a place for lessons and opportunities to play.
Q: Isn’t the Black Lives Matter movement new to you?
A: I experienced this in 1962, 1988 and 1995. Every time the white manager throws money away and says “I have to help the black man” they help us, but when the money runs out , they disappear. Have you noticed that every advertisement 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 meetings were confusing, but I was happy to be with you. Cleo [Parker Robinson] I am from Denver. Jeraldyne (Branden) was Dayton. Lula (Washington), Los Angeles; Anne (Williams) from Dallas. And each time, we learn something about our own organization, about others doing the same thing, and about how we help each other. Mikey Shepherd attracted us and people said we created the Dance USA plaque. At that time, I was on the board of directors of Dance USA. I said, “It doesn’t help black people at all, so I had to get out of here and start mine.”
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 bring together and share, but it is now a service organization in its own right.
Q: Do you miss the first 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 getting on the plate.
Q: The Philadanko family is huge, isn’t it?
A: There is a saying: you are “gon” – no “e” – but you are back. A girl in my summer program said to her mother, “I want to go back to Philadelphia because she will give me the training I need. And his mother said: “I was in Philadanco 25 years ago, I will come back with you. She came back and I left my mini to her.
Let me give you another example. My first business was a soccer player. I didn’t have a big boy in school, so I saw them perform at my old high school and asked them to attend the show. At first they were 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 the trade. I told them to go in the morning to learn the trade, get the check and come to class at night, and they caught the virus. One of the boys runs the business and is now renovating my house.
No one can teach or choreograph. I encourage all dancers to have a second career so that they can do something else when they stop 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 is not here, what should I do?” I want them to say, “Do this and take good care of it.” “
Q: You still have Plan B, what is it?
A: I like living alone. I like to be single. I had three husbands, I’m fine. My plan B is to do nothing, but I’ve noticed that people are paying to talk to me.
Q: Did you forget something?
A: No. Well I have to do it, so I do what I do. And I believe in helping those who need it, and it doesn’t matter if they don’t pay back. The last thing I can say is being black in America is being black in America, and it’s not easy.