ABOVE PHOTO: Joan Myers Brown, founder and director of PHILADANCO.
(Photo by Denise Clay)
For Joan Myers Brown of Philadanco, making dance accessible to everyone has been the goal.
By Denise Clay
One thing that makes folks outside of Philadelphia scratch their heads at times is the unwillingness on the part of city residents to embrace some of our most enduring treasures.
Many of us never visited the African American Museum in Philadelphia, despite its being one of the nation’s first African American museums and its collection of photos, artifacts and other things that tell the story of the Black Experience. If you’re looking to hear Philadelphia’s own Grammy-award winning hip-hop group The Roots on a local radio station, good luck with that.
Even Phillies slugger Ryan Howard gets more love elsewhere than he does here despite being Rookie of the Year, league MVP, and rocking a World Series ring.
To those treasures that don’t get the respect they should we must add the Philadelphia Dance Company, or as most of us know it, Philadanco. This internationally known dance company is celebrating it’s 43rd year with it’s ‘Danco at the Dell Founders Day Dance Concert at the Dell Music Center on Friday at 7 PM.
The SUN sat down with Joan Myers Brown, who was recently named one of the 10 Best Philadelphians by Philadelphia Magazine for her work as founder and executive creative director of Philadanco. She talks about the company, its future, what it’s like to be one of the city’s treasures, and the importance of getting some love from your own.
SUN: Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to start this dance company.
JMB: Well, I have a dance school. The school is 53 years old and the company is 43 years old. Ten years after I had my school, the kids I was training, when I sent them out thinking that they were going to do other things, they’d bounce back to me saying we can’t get a job, we go to the white schools, they don’t want us, the Pennsylvania Ballet doesn’t have any black kids and so forth…
And the girls at that time didn’t leave home. You didn’t leave home until you got married or had gone to college or something. So they didn’t want to go to New York or California or anyplace. And so, then I said okay, well maybe if I start a little dance group because the Links and the AKAs always want someone to dance for free; to give them something to do and to make them move on. Most of them stayed with me for the first eight years before I had to transition out. And then they started moving into the (Alvin) Ailey Company. At first I was devastated, I was losing all my dancers. But it was a positive relationship between Ailey and myself.
SUN: Over the last 43 years that you’ve had this company, are there well known dancers that people who follow dance may recognize that have come out of Philadanco?
JMB: Well, a lot of the dancers that really did well are back. Kim Bears Bailey is my assistant now. Deborah Chase, Deborah Manning, David St. Charles. They’re back here now because there’s not like there’s a stardom. There’s only one Judith Jamison and you don’t hear about anybody else after her. But the dancers that the people in the dance world know are back here teaching. Both Deborahs were with Ailey for 12 years. They left me when they were 21. Everyone knows Kim Bears because she’s a teacher in the dance department at the University of the Arts. She danced with Ailey for 22 years and now she’s my assistant. And Anthony Burrell, one of Beyonce’s lead dancers, will be dancing with us on the 17th.
SUN: You mention the Alvin Ailey Dance Company as a place where many of Philadanco’s alumni wind up. How many people do you estimate have gone from here to Ailey over the years?
JMB: I’d say at least two to five every year go to Ailey. Last year, I lost two of my boys to Ailey. This is over the last 30 years. It took about 10 years before they all started going to Ailey. And I think that there’s five people there that had some experience with Philadanco before they came to Ailey. The kids now, they say if you want to go to Ailey, you go to Danco first.
SUN: Most of the kids that you’ve taught over the years, have they come from the neighborhood or from just places around Philadelphia?
JMB: Well, it started that way. Everybody was from Philly and the neighborhood. Now I have kids that come from Delaware, Atlantic City every week. New Jersey, Wyncote, especially now since I have two locations. (Washington Lane and Ogontz is the new location.) But here, this location, people come from Delaware and Chester. It used to be that everyone in the company was from Philadelphia. Now I don’t have anyone in the company from Philadelphia. The closest I have is a boy from Camden. And that’s because I audition by number and ability, and then I look and see where you’re from.
SUN: Why do you think this is happening?
JMB: What’s happening in Philadelphia now is that there’s a dance school on every corner. Kids that graduate from Kappa, University of the Arts, they open a dance school if they don’t get a job. So a lot of my former students have their own schools. But, I think that with the Dancin’ With the Stars, and the So You Think You Can Dance, that era, everyone wants to learn the tricks, but they don’t want to learn the craft. I mean some schools have classes in leaping and turning. But what about all of the stuff that you need to know so you leap and turn? They don’t teach it. They teach the tricks.
SUN: You mention that there’s an emphasis on teaching the tricks over teaching the craft. What is your philosophy of dance and what have you taught here at Philadanco? Are you a modern school? A ballet school?
JMB: We teach everything. This week, I have a teacher that teaches the Dunham Technique, the technique of Katherine Dunham. Last week, I had a ballet teacher for the week. Then I’ll have a modern teacher. But during the course of the year, on Monday, we’ll have Modern. On Tuesday, we’ll have Graham. On Wednesday we have ballet. On Saturday we have floor barre. Then we might have African. In order to get a job these days in dance, you have to be able to do it all. You can’t just be a ballet dancer. Ballet companies are doing Modern. And I believe that everyone must study ballet. That’s the basis of everything we do here. When the kids come in and they want to take Hip-Hop, I tell them that they can’t just take Hip-Hop; you have to take ballet or something; something where you learn the skills. It’s like playing the piano, but you don’t know the notes.
SUN: You have an event coming up on the 17th. I understand that it’s been a long time since you’ve been at the Dell. I also understand that it’s not an expensive night out…
JMB: It’s been 23 years since we’ve been at the Dell. Susan Slawson [the City’s Director of Parks and Recreation] wanted to find a way to have us at the Dell every year, so we created this Founders’ Day Celebration. We’ve always wanted to come back, but we couldn’t always find room in our touring schedule once it expanded.
We have tickets for Friday night’s show for as low as $10. I did something different with that. You know the fees for Ticketmaster? I made them put that in the ticket price. With [African Americans] if they come to the box office with a couple of kids and see that they have to pay an extra $5 that they didn’t count on, they’re not going to come. This is going to be a fundraiser.
SUN: What can people expect to see?
JMB: Well first of all, Philadanco, the main company. I’m doing my youth group, my junior company. We call them D2. Then there are my kids, my D3, that’s the kids from 9-16. Now I’m putting them on between 7 and 7:30 because their mama’s sell tickets. Then at 7:30, we start with Maurice Hines, and Philadanco and Anthony Burrell. Another one of my dancers has a company, another has his company, so there’s going to be an influx with of guest artists along with Philadanco’s repertory. And all of the things that people say they love about Philadanco, we’re going to do. So it’s going to be a full dance evening; an evening of Philadelphia dance, not just Philadanco.
SUN: You say that Philadanco tours. Where are some of the places you’ve gone?
JMB: We just got back from Macedonia. We’re the first American company invited to Macedonia. WE did Toronto. We do Germany every other year. We’ve been to Hungary, Budapest, all those places, the Netherlands. But nationally, we usually do about 40 weeks of touring. But it varies. Some years we’ll do all West Coast, California, Arizona, Nevada and all. And then, some years we’ll do all New England. Some years we’ll do the South. We’re doing Tennessee a lot this year; South Carolina. We’re doing a lot of the South this year.
We’re going to be doing a really interesting project this year. It’s called the James Brown Project and the Apollo is producing it. Remember “Riverdance” when they had that? It’s going to be a Black Riverdance. In Oct. 2013 we premier it at the Apollo, and we’re going to tour it nationally and internationally. And it’s the influence of James Brown’s music on the world. It’s five different choreographers.
SUN: When you go to places other than Philadelphia and present Philadanco, how does the reaction you get in other places compare to the reaction you get here?
JMB: Well, I’ll tell you what people say. Kids say ‘My sister used to dance with Philadanco’. He meant his sister went to the dancing school. She didn’t dance with Philadanco. So they assume that if they went to the dancing school, that if their kids went, that they’re part of Philadanco. A lot of people don’t, even the kids in my dance school don’t come see Philadanco.
Philadelphia is a one-horse town. They only know want they want to know and only want to support some things. In Germany, a guy said, ‘Oh, they love you in Germany. Everybody in Germany knows you. You’re not as popular as Pepsi, but everybody knows Philadanco.’ I thought it was a compliment. Okay, so if they know Philadanco in Germany, what’s wrong with Philadelphia?
And I’ll give you another example. We’re in New York at the Joyce Theater from Oct. 2 through the 7th. We do nine performances there and we usually sell out. In Philadelphia, I do four performances, and we never sell out.
SUN: So basically, you are the dance equivalent of The Roots?
JMB: Except we’re not on television every week. We need support. It doesn’t always have to be a check. We just want you to come out and support our events. Support is important. And I always say, it’s not just Philadanco. It’s Freedom Theater and the African American Museum and the Bushfire Theater. We don’t have the rich people on our boards. We need to help each other.
SUN: Thank you so much for your time Ms. Myers Brown. It’s an honor to meet you.
JMB: Thank you…
Tickets for the ‘Danco at the Dell Founders Day dance concert at the Dell Music Center are $10, $15, $25, $35 and $100 for VIP. You can get them at the Dell Box Office or through Ticketmaster.
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