84 and still rocking! Joan Myers Brown founded PHILADANCO in 1970 during a time when many African-American dancers were denied entrance to local dance schools. With PHILADANCO, Myers made a point to make a dance company that would provide excellent technical training, inclusion, instill hope, and provide opportunities to its dancers. It was a haven for many minority artists trying to break into the industry.
Brown is invested in providing people with more knowledge about their history and the history of black dance with every show her company performs.
Since opening PHILADANCO, Brown has continued to make groundbreaking moves in her career. She has been named a Master of African American Choreography by the Kennedy Center; President Obama awarded her a National Media of Arts; and even has a day named after her, with Joan Myers Brown Living Legacy Day every year on November 7.
She will forever be known for her work in breaking down racial barriers in dance. One of our marketing interns, Divante, sat down with Ms. Brown to chat about the past, present, and future of PHILADANCO, and what we can expect during her brand new show H-I-S-T-O-R-Y:
Divante: So, it’s to my understanding that the H-I-S-T-O-R-Y performance is about highlighting the past left out of textbooks. With experience in dance and theater, what was it like combining the two for this performance?
Joan Myers Brown: It wasn’t so much about the history left out of textbooks; it’s about general knowledge… I’m thinking that the black kids or people in general don’t know or don’t remember the work that a lot of black artists did. So, I wanted to highlight some of the work that they did, or work that was more or less directed to them….I want to concentrate on what blacks have done.
Divante: Where did most of the inspiration come from? Was it highlighting history, the works of black artists?
Joan Myers Brown: I think it’s not so much their work; it’s the fact that they created work that was good work, and work that should’ve been remembered. My kids didn’t even know that Lewis Johnson choreographed the movie The Wiz. Geoffrey Holder get credit, but…Lewis Johnson didn’t get the credit so I want to make sure that people know that he did the movie… thousands of black kids got jobs.
Divante: What was the most satisfying aspect of putting the show together? Did you face any challenges?
Joan Myers Brown: Well, I think, every time I go to the Kimmel I have to come up with something new. People in Philadelphia will say “Oh, I seen PHILADANCO,” so you always have to do something that will draw their attention – something new and different. Not “Oh that’s the same ol’ thing like Nutcracker, not Nutcracker again”. I don’t want them to think that we are only capable of doing certain things, but we are capable of doing so many other things.
Divante: How did you incorporate your previous background into the performance? Dance, theater…
Joan Myers Brown: Having the experience working in Broadway, theater, and other things that I did helps me with staging, presenting, and programming. So, I think about which ballet I’m going to put first, how is it going to affect the people coming in and what they see first; I don’t want them to leave with doubt.
I want them to leave with an up-feeling so programming is the most important aspect of my prior training. Also I want to make sure my dancers are 100% well trained so they don’t look to us as doing “black stuff, shaking your butt, popping your booty” & that we do have technique and can perform concert dance.
Divante: After the show what impression or outcome do you want to leave on the audience?
Joan Myers Brown: First of all, I want people to enjoy every PHILADANCO performance and the skills my dancers have. Also, [I] want people to be more knowledgeable about their history and the history of black dance. Black people should be more aware that we done things that just isn’t happening now. You know they know Beyoncé and artist like that, but we want them to know more than that.
Divante: What drives and motivates your dancers to dance?
Joan Myers Brown: I don’t know what drives them; I think it’s actually the love of dance because they are not being paid a lot. Most of the dancers stick with me for 7-8 years before trying to move on and most of them move on to Alvin Ailey… they move up and not just on. They like opportunity, they want to dance, they love to dance. They like the challenges of many different choreographers, not the same thing, and many different experiences of different styles and dance – I think that’s what keeps them going.
Divante: Your birthday is December 25th. How are we celebrating this year? What songs will you be jamming to?
Joan Myers Brown: This has not been my favorite day to have a birthday. I always wanted a birthday party on Christmas. My mother always told me “nobody has a birthday party on Christmas”. I thought okay, maybe one day I’ll give myself one. I probably won’t be jamming. I want to be laying on the beach – my jamming days are over. I heard a song I like the other day called “Excellent” by Martha Munizzi.
Divante: Your world premiere pieces include “Pieces of My Heart”…
Joan Myers Brown: I usually leave it up to the choreographer to create a work that they want to create, and she came to me and said that she wanted to do something to August Wilson. I said that is something that would fit in the program. I give them what we call artistic freedom. I’ve had ballets that turn out terrible, but I’ll still put it on the stage and let them see how people respond to their work and then I forget it too. Creating a commission is usually finding money to pay somebody to do a commission. So I usually do 1 or 2 commissions a year – mainly to give younger choreographers an opportunity.
Divante: Do a lot of your students come from the Philadelphia area?
Joan Myers Brown: No, some come from Delaware – one of my former students opened a school there so I don’t get as much as I used to – but Jersey. I opened a studio in northwest Philadelphia so I get a lot of students from Elkins Park and Jenkintown who go there. They come from all over.
Thank you to Joan Myers Brown.