A Milestone year for Joan Myers Brown

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Joan Myers Brown celebrated her 88th birthday on Christmas Day in 2019 in fabulous fashion by sunbathing at the beach. This was a rare day of relaxation for Brown, whose schedule is always demanding as Executive and Artistic Director of her dance company, Philadanco. Her pace is about to pick up even more in 2020 as she marks a dual milestone year that celebrates Philadanco’s 50th anniversary season and the 60th for her school.

Brown is a true Philadelphia legend. She has been the visionary leader for African-American dance.  Her contributions have motivated and inspired generations of students, dancers, choreographers, directors, historians and educators in all of the allied performing arts.

Brown has received many accolades over the years, including the 2012 National Medal of the Arts awarded to her by President Obama. In 2019, Brown was awarded New York’s dance industry Bessie Award for Lifetime Achievement.  Also in 2019, Philadanco was the recipient of a $420,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Yet, in any given year, Brown has had to struggle to keep her company going, maintain so many things she insisted on from the beginning such as yearlong contracts for her dancers. Brown said that at least in the short term this grant takes a lot of pressure off of her and gives her the opportunity to focus on future goals for the company.  “Yes!” and adds, “I have someone to help me now. There’s just always a lot of stuff that needs to get done…. that I can’t get to. Gaynell Sherrod will be taking over administrative duties, so I can step back from that side of it a bit,” Brown said. Dr. Sherrod is an associate professor in the dance department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Other organizational adjustments will also allow Brown to continue artistic direction and development. “I will still do everything on the artistic side. I have such a great artistic team. For me, at my age, this is such a gift.”

International Association of Blacks in Dance comes to Philadelphia to celebrate Philadanco’s 50th

And now, in recognition of Brown’s impact, the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) will convene their annual convention in Philadelphia this year from January 14-19.  Over thirty dance companies, artistic-directors, choreographers, students, presenters, scholars, and dancers from around the US and the world will gather to honor Brown, who not coincidently is IABD ‘s founder.

IABD’s Then | Now |Next 2020 Conference will host some 800 conference attendees here for five days of events that will include master classes, auditions, panel discussions by artists and cultural scholars. Each day culminating in nightly performances at various venues in Center City Philadelphia including the University of the Arts, The Merriam Theater, The Rock School of Dance and The Kimmel Center.

In the interview, Brown was reminiscent of the early years of IABD.  “The first two conferences were in Philadelphia and hosted by Philadanco.  In 1991, we moved to Denver,” and explained “that the conference participants wanted to establish IABD as a non-profit”.  Brown expressed concern that “If we wanted to continue, I told them well, we don’t have money to incorporate, so let’s call it an association. It took us a long time to get our 501c3 tax exemption status.”

Since those first years, the conference has convened in a different host city every year.  IABD’s board members insisted that this year be back in Philadelphia for her company’s anniversary.  The board also wanted to honor their founder’s industry-changing vision,  that has exemplified and been carried forth by IABD.  In 2019, IABD was awarded a $4-million-dollar endowment to expand its network of industry organization, educational and professional goals at every level for black and minority dancers, companies and artistic collaborators.

The IABD performance line-up alone will make this one of the dance events of the year. Starting with The ‘Trailblazers’ series of performances that offer mastered works of Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham, Lester Horton, and other choreographers and companies that are the champions of the Black dance aesthetic.  The ‘Trailblazers’ performances this year include from New York City – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, and from Brooklyn, NY – Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE and Urban Bush Women. Companies from around the country include Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (Denver, CO), Dallas Black Dance Theatre (Dallas, TX), Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (Dayton, OH), Lula Washington Dance Theatre (Los Angeles, CA) and of course, PHILADANCO!

No less impressive this year is the ‘Torchbearers’ group of companies performing at the conference – Ballethnic Dance Company (Atlanta, GA), B. MOORE DANCE (Dallas, TX), Collage Dance Collective (Memphis, TN), Dallas Black Dance Theatre: Encore! (Dallas, TX), Deeply Rooted Dance Theater (Chicago, IL), Dissonance Dance Theatre (Washington, DC), Elisa Monte Dance (New York, NY), Threads Dance Project (Golden Valley, MN) and from Philadelphia Dance Iquail and Eleone Dance Theatre.

Joan Myers Brown always brings it back home to Philly

A preview of the excitement around ‘Danco’s anniversaries got an unofficial start in October with a one-night-only concert at the Merriam Theater titled ‘Genesis.’  Tony Award-winning ‘Hamilton’ star, Leslie Odom performed with Philadanco’s professional and apprentice companies at the Merriam Theater that brought together four generations of dancers and students, onstage and in the audience who were in Brown’s companies or school.

Odom’s unscheduled comments included admitting that he was the worse dancer when he attended Philadanco’s school, but “Joan Myers Brown found a place for me.”  When he auditioned at age 17 for his first professional role in the national tour of RENT, he got the job!

Throughout the evening tributes continued to pour out for Aunt Joan or JB, as she is affectionately addressed and rightly so!  Over six decades, thousands of students who attended Philadanco’s school went on to have successful professional careers in dance and other performing arts, and many other fields, have credited JB for her guidance and training.

After the IABD conference, Brown isn’t pausing for any victory lap.  The company will be, in Brown’s own words, “touring our ass off,” and getting ready for their spring program at the Kimmel Center, with ballets by ‘Dance veteran choreographers Thang Dao and Ray Mercer. On the same bill will be emerging artists BaKari Ifasegun Lindsay and Kathy Smith in a program aptly titled ‘Fast Forward.’  Fasten those dance-belts and stay tuned.

For a complete listing of IABD companies, performances and conference events go to www.iabdassociation.org

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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1 Comment

  1. Congratulations Mrs Joan from the late Wilbert Settles and family. Continued blessings to all that you put your heart n mind too.

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