SNEAK PREVIEW: Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina by Brenda Dixon Gottschild

The Dance Journal wishes to thank Brenda Dixon Gottschild and Palgrave Macmillan for allowing us to publish in advance the prologue to Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina.

Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina
A Biohistory of American Performance
by Brenda Dixon Gottschild
Palgrave Macmillan, 1/3/2012
ISBN: 978-0-230-11409-8, ISBN10: 0-230-11409-1,
Prologue reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan
To pre-order your copy online, click here

 

PROLOGUE

SATURDAY AFTERNOON, JUNE 13, 2009

I arrive around 1 P.M. at 9 North Preston Street, the West Philly location of the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts1 and the Philadelphia Dance Company, also known as Philadanco. The building housing their joint headquarters stands in a humble, working- class neighborhood of mainly African American inhabitants that is on the way to gentrification due to the influx of white students from the nearby University of Pennsylvania community. Some years ago, in homage to its internationally renowned inhabitants, this short street was renamed Philadanco Way by the city of Philadelphia. Inside, the joint is jumping, but that’s always the lay of the land all day Saturday and weekday evenings from September to June, when this dance center is in full swing. Three weeks ago, six hundred students performed in two separate recitals at the venerable Academy of Music on the stretch of Broad Street that’s been renamed The Avenue of the Arts. Today, the last day of classes, is the coda: it’s another season wrap, marking forty- nine years of continuous operation.

I enter the school through the narrow door on the Preston Street side of the compact three- storey building. I proceed past the student registration desk, situated in a small vestibule that opens into the center of a longish narrow hall whose walls are covered with awards received over the years. At the far end of this hallway are two small, oblong dance studios, the second one serving double duty as a costume room and, in the vest- pocket chamber tucked inside it, a one-on- one meeting space. At the near end of the hallway is a door leading to the main office. I check to see if anyone is in, and there she is— Joan. Joan Myers Brown. I’m the only one here who calls her by her given name, with no title or embellishment. To everyone else she’s “Aunt Joan,” “Mom,” “Miss Joan,” “Ms. Brown”— or, to the cooler types, simply “JB.” 2 This building, this school, is her home, her world, and all who enter are her children.

More on her in a minute, but back to her home- away- from- home. Like Dorothy in Oz, once you enter the school, you know you’re no longer in Kansas.

But neither are you “over the rainbow,” because the atmosphere here is anything but otherworldly. This is the world according to Joan, and you are in the house that Joan built, powered by her steam and run by a cadre of women whose extraordinary commitment to prevail, against all odds, is what’s kept this machine up and running, without interruption, for nearly five decades. And her organization has owned this property since 1982.

Here’s what’s going on today:

JB is in the front office, going through mail and doing other paperwork-driven catch- up tasks that never seem to end. This square space, the size of a small hotel room, is flanked by three cubicles that serve as offices for Engrid Bullock, Executive Administrative Assistant; Marlisa Brown- Swint, Artistic Administrative Assistant and the younger of JB’s two daughters; and Vanessa Thomas Smith, General Manager. 3 Intermittently, Brown- Swint’s zone is shared with the director of development Sandra Haughton4 and part- timers hired to deal with fi scal matters. The area where JB stands contains the usual office equipment: mailboxes, desk, copy machine, and so on. Perched on a bookshelf, a couple of framed photos show a beaming JB with celebrities from African American show business and the dance world. But what makes this room unusual is the fact that every wall, shelf, and glass partition is covered with photos: snapshots of company members and friends, past and present; and pictures of everyone’s children, grandchildren, cousins, nephews— babies, babies, babies! This is a matriarchal den of pride in parenthood, motherhood, sisterhood— family. It’s a different way of thinking about professional space and the need to make— or blur— the boundary between life and work; and a slap in the face to mainstream notions of what the headquarters of a major arts organization should look like. It forces the newcomer on first entrance to adjust expectations and reassess value judgments. We are definitely not in Kansas.

On the other side of the main office is the door leading to an empty plot that serves as the school’s parking lot. (Like Los Angeles, Philadelphia is a car-driven city; it’s the only way to get around in a metropolis as spread out as this. Moreover, having an off- street parking facility raises the status of a business.) But today the parking lot is a back yard party, set up with a long table full of goodies— hot dogs, soft drinks, pretzels— that can be purchased for a token fee. Loyal parents act as volunteers, deftly taking care of the buying and selling while enjoying friendly chitchat on this fine pre- summer afternoon. Next, as I wend my way up to the second floor, I glance at the staircase walls lined with dance posters and framed photos of former members of the Philadelphia Dance Company, founded and directed by JB, as well as memorabilia from other companies and concerts. There is a sense of history on these walls, a black dance history that is beyond the achievements of this one ensemble.

Soon this flurry of activity will be over and the second floor spaces vacated for rehearsal by the Philadelphia Dance Company, Philadanco— also affectionately known as Danco. Their New York City Joyce Theater season runs next week, and today’s rehearsal begins at 4 P.M. This brings us back to Joan— JB— the grounding wire for the school and Danco. The school, the professional ensemble, and the youth groups (the Instruction and Training Program and its own performance group, known as D/2; and the Children’s Program, also with its own performance unit, D/3) make up the three “halves” of JB’s life. 8 (Since she works “24/7,” year round, this woman needs an extra half- life.) Every dimension of her existence snakes through this squat building of shared spaces, so that the school and the ensembles contain and embrace both her personal and professional biography. In the second fl oor kitchen, adjacent to the upstairs bathroom and diagonally across the hall from the main studio used by the company, I’ve seen JB prepare lunches for her grandkids or, on Sunday mornings, prerehearsal breakfasts for her dancers. (The flagship company trains and rehearses Saturdays through Wednesdays.) Usually, a pot of strong brewed coffee sits on the counter-top. And then there’s the third floor, up a steep flight of stairs— as narrow and dizzying as those in the houses on the canals in Amsterdam.9 They lead to “heaven,” everybody’s tongue- in- cheek nickname for the top- floor private space where JB and Bears- Bailey can retreat to work in quiet, or Marlisa Brown- Swint can take her babies for a nap, and where I carried out many of the interviews for this book. All told, this edifi ce is peopled by folks who love JB and who love dance. Much, if not most, of JB’s private life is centered in this building, and the extent of her sacrifice in creating her school and company is reflected in the single- focus nature of her life. This is her life, for which she compromised relationships with two husbands (who were often ignored for love of dance) and managed to bring both her daughters, Marlisa and Danielle, into this female stronghold. As adults they are members of the select nucleus of women who surround JB, having fashioned their lives of commitment based on her model, and spending the better part of their days at Danco/Dance Arts, making things happen.

“You can’t exist in the black community without servicing a lot of needs. You can’t just be a dance company, you have to do more.” Those are JB’s words, quoted from an interview she did back in 1995.5 She lives what she speaks, and she and her staff are shape shifters when it comes to pressing studio space into community service. (Once, I found a baby shower going on in a downstairs studio; general meetings for the 2010 International Association of Blacks in Dance6 (IABD) conference were held in the costume room.) Her commitment is acted out today on the second floor, in the large dressing room normally reserved for Company members, where an Aerosoles party is in progress. The space has been transformed into a makeshift shoe salon; footgear is lined up, on display for prospective customers, and a company rep is taking orders. And customers there are: women who’ve come to pick up their kids or grandkids, or who never left after they dropped them off, have brought friends to this event. Kim Bears-Bailey, a gifted former dancer with the ensemble and now its Assistant Artistic Director, sits next to me. We try on summer sandals while she dials up someone whom she encourages to come over and check things out. A nominal percentage of each transaction will go to Dance Arts, but that is not the point. More importantly, these events build up community trust and the sense that this school belongs to the people. And there’s definitely a festive feeling in the air. People are having a good time, and the small fry are running around, playing tag, and waiting for Karen Still- Pendergrass 7 to finish teaching her final class of the season in the studio adjacent to the “shoe salon.” One woman, trying on a fashionable sandal, turns to Bears- Bailey and points out a toddler whom she identifi es as her great- grandchild. There are traditions and generations here: people who sent their children now send their children’s children to study at Ms. Joan’s school.

But let us make no mistake or be fooled by the homespun, “Mom and Pop” neighborhood- store veneer. This is a sophisticated organization carrying out complex tasks under perennially difficult circumstances. It’s a case of triple jeopardy: an arts organization run by a woman who happens to be black. JB has been described as a nurturer, a fighter, a giver, a believer. All of this is bundled into one dynamic lady who knows the value of tough love in the making of a dancer and shows it in her no- nonsense leadership style. It is remarkable that this willow- slim, 5- foot 5- inch- tall woman with the cool personality and sharp tongue has created a dance company whose reach has expanded from the black Philadelphia community that reared her to national and international renown. Hers was one of the first dance companies in the nation to provide fi fty- two-week salaries for its dancers, and the first in Philadelphia to provide them with low- income housing. Though principally composed of African American dancers, Danco hires Diasporan black dancers (that is, from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America) as well as Asian, Latino, European, and white American artists. The company tours regularly, performing, teaching, and going on residencies nationwide and abroad.

BACKSTORY

When I moved to Philadelphia in the 1980s, I was introduced to and became part of a unique and fertile dance landscape that since then has grown and blossomed to become even richer and quite diverse. JB was and still is central to this picture. Her personal and professional history reflect hardships as well as advances of African Americans in the artistic and social developments of the second half of the twentieth century and the transition into the twenty- fi rst.

Born in 1931, JB began studying dance as a youngster. She cut her eyeteeth in the same Philadelphia dance classes that spawned the likes of Judith Jamison and Billy Wilson. Dance was her passion and, over time, became her mission. To give black dancers quality training, she founded the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts in 1960 at a time when racial discrimination kept African Americans out of white classes. Ten years later she formed the Philadelphia Dance Company so that her highly skilled black dancers would have performance opportunities commensurate with their awesome abilities. As a dancer herself, and in establishing her school and dance ensemble, she had to work against great resistance in a city where racial equality was not the norm. Against all odds and with “audacious hope” she succeeded in forging a national and international identity, and Danco tours are now a regular feature on concert stages and in festivals, stateside and overseas. Some who trained at her school or danced in her company have had careers with other world- class dance companies, such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Jiri Kylian’s Netherlands Dance Theatre, as well as on Broadway and in Europe. Others have gone on to establish their own dance schools and companies across the nation.

Moreover, living up to her community commitment, she offers scholarships to needy children for the annual summer Danco Dance Camp. She renovated buildings on the run- down block across the street from her headquarters, transforming them into modest but comfortable living spaces for her dancers. In 1992, when Philadanco toured in Bermuda, she organized for community members and company supporters a low- cost “winter vacation,” accompanying the ensemble for a weekend getaway on the island. She seizes opportunities wherever she sees them.

The book begins with discussion of a quartet of elite dance schools in the segregated Philadelphia of the 1920s, particularly the school of Essie Marie Dorsey, who mentored both Marion Cuyjet and Sydney King. In turn, and passing on the legacy, Cuyjet and King were JB’s mentors. I examine JB’s birth decade— the 1930s— as it affected Cuyjet and King, who were teenagers at that time. Contact with the Catherine Littlefield Ballet Company and other white dance professionals helped to shape a nascent aesthetic that would come to fruition in the founding of dance schools by both Cuyjet and King in the 1940s. It is remarkable that, despite their exclusion from the white ballet world, these women and their students nurtured the seemingly impossible dream of becoming professional ballerinas. I will consider the color- caste system in the black community and discuss racial “passing,” as both Dorsey and Cuyjet passed as white for limited periods in order to dance in white ballet companies (and occasionally to gain entry to venues prohibited for darker- skinned African Americans).

Some readers might ask why African Americans would dream of studying and performing classical European ballet. It’s simply another example of black Americans’ long struggle toward social and racial integration and equal opportunity with other Americans on every level— from the ballot box to the ballet stage. To be a black ballerina in twentieth century America was the artistic equivalent of staging a civil rights protest. If this book seems to be repetitive at times, it is because this area of dance history and practice has been so neglected that insistently pressing home the message (cultural, aesthetic, racial, societal) is a necessary corrective.

JB’s beginnings are focal points for examining the artistic, communal, and sociopolitical climate of the 1930s through the 1950s. As in other cities, the existence of dancing schools in the black Philadelphia community indicates an upwardly mobile aspiration and potential and a radical departure from learning by imitating peers or dancing in the streets. As a child at the Dorsey school and later as an adolescent, the young JB was blessed with the guidance of an inspiring (white) high school dance teacher, commited mentors King and Cuyjet, and internationally renowned choreographer/teacher Antony Tudor. JB’s life in show dancing and modern dance were a direct result of the fact that, as a black woman, she couldn’t be a ballerina. Starting a school of her own in 1960 and a dance company in 1970 move the narrative to another level of social and cultural investigation. Through her life and career we can understand the Philadelphia example of performance and race as a microcosm that reflects American mores of the era but with its own singular characteristics.

JB regards Tudor as a major early influence. Beginning in 1949–1950, the English choreographer broke the city’s color barrier by allowing her and other talented African Americans (including John Jones, Billy Wilson, and later, Judith Jamison) to take his classes. JB danced in Tudor productions presented by the Philadelphia Ballet Guild, but a bigoted remark in a local newspaper review helped convince her that the mainstream ballet world was not ready for a black ballerina. She commuted to New York City and studied ballet with Karel Shook and Dunham technique with Walter Nicks at the Katherine Dunham School. Later in the 1950s she entered show business, touring with Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., and others. The implications of Dunham’s teaching philosophy— that dance is a mirror of the world— had a profound infl uence on her after she ended her performing career and became a dance educator and company director.

FAST FORWARD

The Philadelphia School of Dance Arts is a world unto itself and teaches life skills along with ballet, modern jazz, hip hop, acrobatics, and tap. As the resident dance company at Philly’s new Kimmel Center, Philadanco has two home seasons a year. There’s also D/2 and D/3. JB is a constant presence at her school and with her programs. Despite her full plate, she still manages to focus concentrated attention on Danco, touring with the company, dropping in on dance classes, and occasionally teaching a company class.

And there is the larger picture. In 1991 she cofounded IABD to “preserve and promote dance by people of African ancestry or origin.” Since then she also received an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Ursinus College (Collegeville, Pennsylvania), and is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of the Arts and Howard University. This woman has walked the walk on behalf of dance. As it says in her resume, “She speaks out, talks back, and shows up.”

Fulcrum— the point or support on which a lever pivots; an agent through which

vital powers are exercised.

—American Heritage College Dictionary

The “fulcrum” definitions offer a supporting metaphor for JB’s status and influence in the concert dance world and the nation’s black community. In a professional career of fifty- plus years, her perspective and vision have affected generations of dancers and dance makers. Arguably, her Philadelphia School of Dance Arts and Philadelphia Dance Company are responsible for an approach to performance that I call the “Philadelphia School,” paralleling the renowned Philly Sound created by composers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. (Unlike its musical counterparts, dance milestones are often “invisibilized.”) I use JB’s career and achievements as the fulcrum to leverage an investigation of the interface between performance, cultural formation, and race politics as evidenced by the development of a dance community in black Philadelphia and the rise and spread of its influence beyond community and regional borders to national and international distinction.

Although its focus is a person whose influence emerges from a specific setting, this work should not be construed as a regional study. It is an American primer— the story of a woman and the institutions she erected in tandem with the story of a community, a city, a style— a tradition. 10 I came up with the compound word “biohistory” to describe my biography- as- history approach to this work; someone pointed out that the new coinage can stand for biology- history as well, meaning the ecology of this community— the interactions between the people and their environment. Both interpretations are valid. Moreover, the Philadelphia black community’s dance tradition outstrips regional specificity and must be interrogated in terms of broader concerns in contemporary American life— issues of identity, social change, and cultural comfort levels— allowing us to understand that dance is, indeed, a measure of culture and a barometer of society.

Rather than attempting to cover every detail in her rich and ongoing life of service, I aim to present a chaptered album picturing highlights of Joan Myers Brown’s growth, development, and influence. Each text portrait concludes with a visual album of photos and an occasional document. Beginning with the conditioning forces and circumstances that nurtured her, the book progresses through her performing career in show business and examines the wide- reaching impact of JB’s legacy as a mentor and aesthetic agent in concert dance and matters of stage presentation that extend far beyond her Philadelphia beginnings. The “audacious hope” designation resonates with the title of President Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope. The phrase rings true for who our protagonist is and what she represents. Although unique to her time and place, JB’s cultural ecology is a slice of American history that shares common ground with other African American stories. Nevertheless, and without a doubt, it is also a prototype for Americans of other ethnicities— an object lesson in survival, resolve, persistence, and reconciliation, particularly for those who have come through, in spite of social, racial, and economic constraints. It is a looking-back- leaning- forward weave of historical documentation, interviews, and critical analysis that resonates with African American twentieth- century history, on the one hand, and the promise of the new millennium, on the other. It may serve as a model for other communities of dance to tell their respective stories.

This book belongs to Joan Myers Brown and the dance environment and culture she helped create. As much as possible I have allowed the people who populate this ecosystem to speak in their own voices, with substantial portions of interview transcripts embedded throughout the chapters. So, now, let’s begin.

Brenda Dixon Gottschild, author of Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance, Waltzing in the Dark, and The Black Dancing Body, is professor emerita of Dance Studies at Temple University and a former senior consultant and writer for Dance Magazine. She lectures nationally and internationally, using her own dancing/thinking body to illustrate her ideas and blur the division between practice and theory.