By Merilyn Jackson
If you ever met Joan Myers Brown, you’d know you met the epitome of glamour. She’s the elegantly 80, legendary impresario who founded The Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco!) in 1970. In 1988 she was a founder of the International Conference of Black Dance Companies and in 1991 she founded the International Association of Blacks in Dance, of which she is now an honorary chair. She may never have been celebrity enough to be chosen for the popular BlackGlama fur campaign, but she boldly wears fur, and would wither anyone with a stare if challenged.
Despite limited funding and not nearly enough local appreciation, Philadanco has toured the world for many years and Philadelphia considers Brown its greatest cultural ambassador. This decade has brought her and the company more local recognition and stability. In 2004, The Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater gave Philadanco a permanent presence on the Avenue of the Arts where the troupe often sells out the house as dance company in residence. Among Brown’s many awards and honorary doctorates was her 2010 Philadelphia Award. She plowed back much of the $25,000 award into beefing up Daniel Ezralow’s Xmas Philes, a funny and often moving, holiday favorite. For her extraordinary artistic guidance, her nurturance of many dancers and choreographers, visionary leadership, and grace under fire in the dance field, Myers Brown is one of the 2013 Dance/USA honorees.
I interviewed her for Dance Teacher Magazine in 2003 – the first national feature she says she had. During our conversation I mentioned that as a child I took lessons at Jay Dash Studios in Philadelphia. “Oh,” Brown said, “they wouldn’t let me in cuz I’m black.” So she studied with historical black dance schools in the city, including Sydney School of Dance and went on to a successful touring career in club revues – for two and a half years at Montreal’s Café Montmartre and a tour with Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis, Jr. Tiring of life on the road, she started her West Philadelphia dance school in 1960 and can still be reached by phone there as late as midnight. It’s where the company rehearses and families (including her own children and granddaughters) crowd the halls to watch their children, Brown’s students, blossom.
Philadanco! danced its recent April program like a well-oiled machine gunning to overtake the pack of the other Philadelphia dance companies that perform on the Avenue of the Arts. Yet Brown still struggles for funding to commission new choreography, which the company has proven time and again kicks the artistic cachet over the top. Christopher Huggins’ latest work for them, Big Bang, is but one example. Most people in the dance world know some of these facts about her, but I got to know Brown on a first name basis over time and thought readers would like to hear some personal anecdotes about my friend Joan.
Our first encounter was unpleasant. As local liaison for the 1999 Dance Critics Association Conference in Philadelphia, I wrote a snarky, one-liner restaurant guide for the conferees. As a panelist, I suppose Joan really wanted to take down at least one critic and after a few disparaging remarks about local dance criticism, which left me bristling, she went on to a more personal attack. “Now, I ask you,” she said to the assembled writers, waving my pages beside her mic, “do we really want a dance critic who writes about food?”
I left the auditorium biting the inside of my cheeks, learning later that my colleagues challenged her with questions like, “Don’t you think critics need to know about at least as many subjects as you might find in a dance – religion, politics, sex and yes, food?”
In 2001, Philadanco! and Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Company were headlining the Contemporary Dance Festival in Bytom, Poland. Coincidentally, I was invited as dance-critic-in-residence and Brown’s company would be touring three cities in Poland where I knew my way around. I asked my Inquirer editor, then Jeff Weinstein, if I could cover the tour.
“Aren’t there bad feelings between you and Joan?” he asked.
“Yes, but I’ll just be professional.” Assignment in hand I and went to meet Joan again. She dispensed with polite greetings, plowing right in. “I guess I’ll never be invited to speak at a DCA conference again,” she wryly said, holding out her hand.
“Oh, sure you will,” I responded in kind. “In about five or ten years.”
We shook hands, looked each other in the eye and just broke up laughing. And that was the beginning of my admiration for Joan. When I see Joan now, I see the glamour but I also feel her warmth, her goddess-like protectiveness over her charges, and her sense of service to her community and her city. A warm friendship grew over the next weeks in Poland as I watched, often in amazement, at how she handled challenges.
The first test came when Air France lost many of the company’s costumes somewhere en route. On the six-hour, un-air conditioned bus ride to their first performance in Poznan, Joan, starched in white blouse and khaki Bermudas, told the men “You’ll wear your jeans for Hand Singing Song (Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s piece about freedom that the recently freed Polish audiences loved.) When some protested, Joan shot back: “You dance bare-chested in your jeans in the clubs, you can do it here.”
In Poznan’s Rynek or market square, Joan took the women shopping for dresses they might use for David Brown’s Labess II, a piece I’d already seen and reviewed. I had loved it partly for the way its tulip-like skirts fluted out when the women dervished in them. I was very disappointed the costumes were AWOL. Joan found dresses that matched the men’s merlot-colored briefs almost exactly, and she said, “Okay. We’ll take four of these and cut them to mid-thigh.” Amazingly, they worked pretty well.
The black chiffon gowns for Ravel’s La Valse had arrived and looked wonderful filling up the stage in Warsaw’s seven-tiered, Stalinist-era Teatr Dramatyczny. At the curtain calls, I couldn’t help but stand up and take pictures. After several shots, a burly little usher came barreling down the aisle at me and grabbed for my camera, which I easily held above my head out of her reach. She yelled that taking pictures was not allowed, and my friends in the area yelled back at her that the performance was over. Finally, she backed off.
I went backstage to find Joan, so my husband and I could take her to dinner. I found her alone in the dressing room washing out the costumes. All but a few were already hanging on a line, dripping onto the dismal concrete floor of the enormous room. When I asked why she was doing this alone, she said, “Somebody’s got to, and the kids are too excited and hungry.” In the Warsaw summer night, daylight was still pouring through the windows after 9 p.m. “Gee, I’d have been here sooner to help,” I said, “but I got into a little fuss with an usher out there.”
Joan shook her head. “Oh, that was you makin’ that ruckus? I might have known.” And she handed me a wet dress to snap out before putting it on the line. We took her to Villa Foksal where I heard familiar voices in the restaurant -- Polish friends of mine from Philadelphia. They asked us to join them and Joan relaxed, enjoyed the excellent dinner and answered their questions about the company and the tour.
The next day: another hot bus ride back to Bytom for the last show. After the show in Bytom, everyone gathered in the café that stayed open late to feed the performers. Zane Booker, who had arrived ahead to teach at the festival and act as Joan’s point man, sat around a table with Kristen Irby, Ahmad Lemmons, and other men of the company. “Where’s Joan?” I asked.
“Up in the office, trying to get us paid,” said Irby. It was 11 o’clock and while the company and others were being served, I knew Joan hadn’t eaten. I went up to the office to see if she wanted Joan and her charges endured racial epithets while touring Bytom, Poland. Some even had garbage thrown at them from windows above. But Joan reacted by turning steely and staring it down, something her young dancers were too visibly shaken to do. me to bring her something. I could see she was steamed, sitting with her arms crossed, her foot tapping, as she spoke through clenched teeth in low tones with the director of the festival and his manager. She waved me off. It was 1:30 a.m. before she got down to the café where we all waited for her. The company was still unpaid, but with a six-month extension on the contract. Joan later said, “It was a good thing. Trust for Mutual Understanding and other funders paid our way,” but she was very annoyed at having to move money around to pay her dancers in the meantime.
Joan and her charges endured racial epithets while touring Bytom. Some even had garbage thrown at them from windows above. But Joan reacted mainly by turning steely and staring it down, something her young dancers were too visibly shaken to do.
The last morning we boarded a bus to visit Auschwitz, an hour away. Some of the dancers were only 18, out of the country for the first time; it was important for them to have that experience. I knew how traumatizing it would be and felt the need to support Joan and Vanessa Thomas, then the company’s executive director, in handling the reactions of the young dancers. When we arrived at the crematoria, Joan – again crisp in white tennis shoes, ankle socks, blouse and Bermudas – said she had a paternal German Jewish grandmother, Mariah Sturdevant, and since she was black, “They’d have had three reasons to gas me.” What would be the third? “Runnin’ my mouth.”
Some of the dancers were clearly shocked by the gruesome sights and the hard-to-fathom brutality of the Nazi extermination camp. They identified especially with the cutaway models of the train cars. “They remind me of the slave ships, the way so many were packed in,” said one dancer.
We motored away in silence to the lovely city of Kraków, where everyone decompressed with lunch at one of its many sidewalk cafés and shopped in the square. Vanessa Thomas caught up to us with some weird sex tchotchkes – souvenirs we all giggled over. “Those’ll make some conversation pieces,” said Joan, in her laconic way.
Shortly, we happened upon a furrier with a magnificent white mink coat displayed in the window. It took our breaths away. “Merilyn,” Joan said, “next time you come to Poland, bring me back one of these, because I’m not coming back.”
I never got to honor that request, but every time I write about her, the honor is all mine. For more background on Aunt Joan, as company members and students call her, Brenda Dixon Gottschild, professor emerita of dance studies at Temple University, wrote a marvelous biography that was released last year: Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina – A Biohistory of American Performance. At a recent book signing someone asked Joan how she stays so beautiful. “Beauty,” I noted, “is a decision, one Joan makes every day.”
What becomes a legend most is dignity, doggedness, beauty, and boldness. Joan Myers Brown has all that, along with a wicked sense of humor that gives her resilience and her company staying power. There’s more to glamour than wearing fur and looking svelte. When she said she might write an autobiography, I asked what she would call it. She tartly quipped, “You’re Not Gonna Believe This S**t.”
Photos: Joan Myers Brown, courtesy Philadanco!
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Merilyn Jackson has written regularly on dance for The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel, and Eastern European and Latin American fiction for many publications. More than 800 of her articles have appeared in publications as diverse as The New York Times, The Warsaw Voice, The Arizona Republic, The Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, and Arizona Highways, Dance, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, Broad Street Review and www.exploredance.com. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, O Solitary Host. A chapter, “A Sow of Violence,” appeared in the Massachusetts Review in the Fall 2004 “Food Matters” issue. In 2012 she attended poetry workshops at Colgate University and Sarah Lawrence College. Several of her poems appear in Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse and Broad Street Review and are forthcoming in other publications later this year. Much of her writing can be read on her personal blog, Prime Glib.
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