Friday, August 1, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Dance make you strong. She's proof

WALK INTO the Philadanco lobby, and you'll see all four walls covered with awards and accolades for the company and its founder, Joan Myers Brown. Atop one display case is the most recent prize: the 2012 National Medal of Arts, along with a photo of Brown accepting the award from President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Brown, 82, has guided the excellent company and its school for more than 50 years with every ounce of her boundless energy. She has mentored thousands of predominantly African-American dancers, many of whom have moved on to Alvin Ailey, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Broadway or Las Vegas. Eight former members of her school or company have opened their own dance schools in the region.

Brown's 16-dancer Philadanco troupe has travel engagements 40 weeks a year. They return for four performances Thursday through next Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Brown spoke with Daily News contributor Tom Di Nardo recently at the Philadanco studio.

Q How did you start dancing?

The 4-H Club taught music and dance at my elementary school, and I joined the ballet club at West Philadelphia High School. I was a flower who wanted to be the princess!

The arts and dance affect the children that they touch, and they learn perseverance and self-esteem - not just the guts and glory of jumping around the stage in a costume. Children see "Dancing With the Stars," with people doing tricks, and don't realize there's a craft that must be learned.

Q Do you still get great satisfaction in mentoring young people?

Yes. City Councilperson Blondell Reynolds Brown was one of my dancers, and Mayor Nutter's wife, Lisa, danced in my school. It's like a finishing school.

I can't tell you how many young women have told me that if they hadn't gone to dancing school, they wouldn't have succeeded in life. It's what gives me the energy to continue.

Q Who does most of the training these days, and how are your school and dance company structured?

I have had the same teachers for 20 or 30 years, but I do it if someone can't show up. Our school is for-profit, with 600 kids and maybe 60 full or partial scholarships, which pays the company's space rent. The company is nonprofit. Once, the school was the source for the company's dancers, but grants insist auditions must be open to everybody.

There's a second company that does runout shows: We load them in a bus, and they dance for free.

Q Where does your support come from?

Mostly from foundations in New York. There's very little from the major foundations in Philadelphia.

We've performed all over the world and just sold out nine shows at the Joyce Theater in New York. But we can't sell out four shows in Philly. Out of 600 kids in my school, 50 will come to our concert. I ask them: How do you want to do ballet and not come and see ballet?

Q What about the compoany's future?

Well, it's like an old tree, and acorns are falling and growing up all around it. There isn't anyone who wants to pick up the responsibility, so I keep going. I don't want to die on the ballet bar but on the beach, looking like an alligator pocketbook.

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