It was a family reunion in West Philadelphia on Friday afternoon, as dancers from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) gave a surprise toast to Joan Myers Brown, the founder of Philadanco and an icon of black dance.
“You are so important to us,” Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH, told Brown in a speech. “We are your children.”
It’s not like no one had anything to do. In a weekend extravaganza of black dance, Ailey would be opening at the Academy of Music on Friday night, while DTH moved in at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
But you don’t come home without seeing your relatives.
“You have made all of us who we are,” said DTH executive director Anna Glass, who arranged the event, which was dreamed up by resident choreographer Robert Garland. He studied at Philadanco’s Philadelphia School of Dance Arts as a teenager.
“Nobody surprises me," Myers Brown said, wiping away tears and laughing. “My daughter knows I hate surprises.”
A mentor to many of the 40 or so dancers in the room, Brown was a leader in black dance and "a remarkable ballerina,” said Garland, who was warmly welcomed back to Philadanco over the course of his career. “You were the first person who invited me into your house as a choreographer.”
Ailey dancer Jermaine Terry, from Washington, also got his start with Philadanco, and not just as a dancer. Brown let him do costume designs for a few ballets, and now he is both a costume designer and a performer.
Dana Nichols is a Philadanco apprentice from Los Angeles who went to Haverford College and always knew she wanted to dance with a black company. She knows that many see Philadelphia as a jumping-off point, but she said she’s happy in a smaller troupe like Brown’s. And she’s not the only one.
“There are many longstanding company members who could’ve gone to Ailey but chose to stay here,” Nichols said.
Michael Jackson Jr. (who is not that Michael Jackson Jr.) couldn’t wait until the afternoon to see Brown. A dancer with Ailey, Jackson formerly danced with Philadanco, and was the artistic director of D3, a troupe of teenage dancers at Philadanco. He eagerly caught up with many friends in the room, as the New Orleans native’s first dance job was in the DTH ensemble.
But on this morning, Jackson wanted to spend time with Brown, who he knew would be at the studio at 9 a.m. So that’s when he arrived. “I came out of the Uber and I saw the tire tracks in the snow,” Jackson said. That’s how he knew Brown was there. It was the first surprise of her day. “She gave me coffee and we talked for two hours.”
But it wasn’t like Brown had nothing to do, either.
On Thursday night, she was at a Philadelphia school board meeting, where proposals for four charter schools were all denied, including one String Theory Schools wanted to name in her honor. Brown said she understood, though she believes a need will go unmet.
By Friday morning, she was already back at it, working on a grant application due that day.
“I have an NEA proposal due at 6 p.m., and I had to get my hair done,” she said after the toast. She’d be going to see Ailey that night and DTH on Saturday. “This must be black dance weekend,” she commented.
“It’s like a room full of love,” Jackson said.