By Tara Mitton Catao
Joan Myers Brown has been on a mission since she was 6 years old: to create equal opportunities for black dancers.
An only child, Brown began dance class in the 1940s in the only dance school in her hometown of Philadelphia that would accept black children. Later, pursuing her love for classical ballet, she became the first black student to train at the Ballet Guild with the great Anthony Tudor. She, like so many young girls, hoped to become one of the world’s great ballerinas.
But when she realized that dream was not possible for her, she turned her dream into a reality for others. In 1960, she opened her own school, The Philadelphia School of Dance, where black dancers were welcomed and they could receive a complete and comprehensive professional training in dance.
Ten years later, seeing the need to provide work for the well-trained and talented black students graduating from her school, Brown founded the Philadelphia Dance Company (aka Philadanco) to bridge the cultural divide that still existed in the dance world, as professional companies were still slow to hire black dancers.
Among her numerous accomplishments (which also includes receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2013), Brown’s focus hasn’t wavered as she continues to pursue with the same drive her mission to advance dancers of color.
“My work now is to try to get more girls of color into ballet companies so that they start looking like America,” Brown said this week. “A lot of these girls have to leave America to get a job and to be recognized. We want America to wake up.”
To achieve this goal, Brown has set up as an annual event, the IABD Ballet Audition for Women of Color, at which directors from ballet companies and teachers from ballet schools audition dancers of color for their institutions. The success is already evident by the increase of dancers of color in ballet. It hasn’t been easy to break the mold of the traditional aesthetic of the only white dancers in classical ballet but finally, it is slowly happening, she said.
“How much longer do I have to prove myself?” Brown asked.
Brown, now 85, has been executive and artistic director of the company she founded for 47 years, and it takes a lot of energy to keep it going. But she finds inspiration in the children who attend her school.
“When some little 4-year-old girl says to me ‘I can’t wait to be in Philadanco,’ I say, ‘OK, I’ve got to get in tomorrow and make sure that Philadanco will still be there,’” Brown said.
The troupe also faces continued financial challenges. Brown said at this moment, times are hard for the arts in general and that Philadelphia, in particular, is a tough city for the arts.
“It is really difficult right now. But you hang in there because you are committed. I always say that I don’t have Philadanco, Philadanco has me,” she said.
“I am trying to make it to my 50th [year] and then I can stay home and play jacks with my grandchildren,” Brown said.
Brown said she tries to personalize the program for every venue while choosing works from the company’s substantial repertory because she feels it is important to be sensitive to her audience. She likes to show “a little bit of everything” and hope that “there’s something for everyone.”
This weekend’s performances will feature Latched, by Christopher L. Huggins, a work that explores latching on to another body, soul and spirit, and Between the Lines, by Francisco Gella, a work inspired by the architectural drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright.
A Movement for 5, by Dawn Marie Brazemore, is also on the program. This work draws upon the story of the so-called Central Park 5, five young black men falsely accused of raping a woman in New York in 1989. Closing the program is Super 8!, a high-energy piece by Ray Mercer.
The works will draw upon African-American culture, classical ballet, and modern/contemporary dance. And as always, Brown will there — at the back of the theater — noting the dancers’ performances, observing the audiences’ response to them and taking the time to enjoy the beauty and talent of her dancers.
Philadanco will perform Friday and Saturday night at the Duncan Theatre on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth. Performances are at 8 p.m. and tickets are $39. Call the box office at 561-868-3309 for tickets or more information or visit www.duncantheatre.com.