‘We just happen to be black’

A talk with Joan Myers Brown, pioneer and founder of the dance troupe Philadanco

Joan Myers Brown

Joan Myers Brown

Joan Myers Brown should feel a little more comfortable these days.

The executive artistic director and founder of Philadanco, a 32-year-old dance ensemble from Philadelphia composed largely of African Americans, saw her group designated in January as a resident of the new, state-of-the-art Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Philly.

“Our other facilities were adequate, but the attention about being in a new facility [helps], and we can now select dates for our concerts more amenable to ticket sales. Before that, we had to wait for whatever dates were left,” says Brown wryly from her studio/office back East.

A lifetime lover of dance, Brown has struggled for decades to maintain funding for her group, one of among 46 dance groups in Philadelphia. It’s a difficult funding area of the arts, she tells me, and her dancers often leave for the brighter lights of nearby New York.

“I think passion has left a lot of the field. Dancers used to love to get on stage and dance however they could. Now the first question is, ‘How much am I getting paid?'”

Having served on a broad range of regional and national organizations, as well as founded an International Conference of Black Dance Companies, Brown was honored two years ago as one of the “Dance Women: Living Legends” during a four-day series sponsored by New York-area presenters who honored five African-American pioneer women who had founded modern-dance companies.

“If I’m a pioneer, I’m looking for my horse and wagon ‘cause I need some help to get though this,” she laughs. “I’m not privy to a lot of the major grants. It’s still tough to get ahead. Dance is underfunded, and black companies are still at the bottom of the totem pole unless you’re hot right then.”

When asked whether she thinks racism still exists in her field, her answer is immediate.

“I don’t think it, after 30 years I know it,” she says wearily. “Most black groups don’t have access to major funding, don’t get promoted or presented in major houses. Things haven’t changed that much. There are still only one or two African Americans in most ballet companies or in major works on Broadway. The work is not really out there for all dancers of color. … It’s all about access.”

Philadanco, who have been hailed as “marvelously skilled dancers with powerful personalities” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). On Feb. 18 at 5 p.m., Chico Performances presents members of the group in a master class at the Chico Creek Dance Center (114 W. 1st Street). The ensemble will also include an additional performance for a field trip of 1300 elementary school children at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 19 in Laxson. Brown says “its great to feel like you’re affecting young children because a lot of times they don’t think of the arts as a career.”

Photo By Lois Greenfield

Looking back on her career, Brown says she was first attracted to dance by the physical challenge and “sheer enjoyment of seeing what the body can do.”

She names influences such as Janet Collins and teacher/anthropologist Katherine Dunham, black women who broke barriers dancing in the 1950s and ‘60s, who “were idealistic and had goals that weren’t acceptable but were able to survive.

“Katherine is 90 years old and still teaching. To me that’s amazing,” Brown says. “And Janet Collins was the first black ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera. I wanted desperately to be a ballet dancer myself, but it just didn’t happen.”

Hailed as “exuberant” by the New York Times and “high-speed wonders” by the Los Angeles Times, Philadanco’s dancers have a physicality and energy that is cited often in their widespread media acclaim.

“I don’t think we aim for that as a primary goal, but it happens, and the audience responds to the incredible facilities of the dancers and how well-trained they are.”

Brown says that for the ensemble’s return to Chico State University on Feb. 19, it will be performing two works from Messages from the Heart, intended to extend the influence of women in dance and featuring the prerecorded music of the a cappella, Afro-Euro women’s group Zap Mama—as well two other pieces, My Science (about water imagery and the collision of matter featuring the music of Led Zeppelin) and Hand Singing Song (about the use of hand signatures such as the “dap” from the Black Power Movement).

“It’s like making a cake: You’re not sure how it’s gonna turn out every time,” Brown notes. “But I believe in giving the choreographer artistic freedom so they have an opportunity to grow themselves, challenge the dancers, look at the work and revisit. It’s never a complete failure.”

Despite the continuing racism, Brown remains optimistic about the future of dance groups like hers. “There’s some good regional dance going on these days. … The quality is being demanded, so the companies that come in maintain a level of excellence.”

Brown believes companies like Philadanco are often booked “as a kind of afterthought. … When you can’t get Alvin Ailey or whoever, you look to the regionally based who have lesser budgetary cost.”

Though her group is billed in press releases as “home to African-American choreographers … who illuminate the African-American experience,” Brown is quick to clarify any intended racial messages of her own over the years.

“It’s nothing about blackness. I’m not sending any messages about being black through this work. I just hope people will experience and enjoy it. … You may have heard this was about the African-American experience—but I think it happens to be Black History Month and they’re bringing in a predominantly black group. We’re dancers who just happen to black. I think that’s what it is."