In the midst of the civil rights era, Joan Myers Brown started a school for young African-American dancers in Philadelphia. The year was 1960 and society was still very much segregated, especially in the world of dance. A decade later, some of Brown's students were ready for the next stage in their careers, yet they still struggled to find jobs in most companies. So Brown founded the Philadelphia Dance Company, Philadanco for short, to give those students a chance to get their professional footing. It didn't take long for her to realize that Philadanco was filling a serious void in the dance community. Forty years later, it still is.
Philadanco has grown into an internationally respected company with 16 core dancers from across the country. Yet Brown never thought that after all these years they'd still be dealing with many of the same issues that prompted their formation. "Even today, the ballet companies still only have one black dancer, so you know not much has changed," Brown says. "When they try to get a job with the ballet, there are still no jobs. Even though modern dance companies are more integrated, there's still not an overall place for them."
Brown and the Philadanco staff founded the International Association of Blacks in Dance in 1988 to preserve and promote dance by people of African descent. An annual conference brings together equally esteemed companies like the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Lula Washington Dance Theatre in L.A., and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in Denver. In terms of diversity, Brown points to New York, specifically Broadway, as offering the most integrated dance scene, while Philadelphia and most other cities have a long way to go.
"All we do is talk about it and hope that people become more and more aware as the nation becomes more and more aware that there's still this strife," Brown says. "I think the arts reach out more than other organizations as far as they talk about the glass ceilings, how blacks don't get past that glass ceiling, even in the corporate world. I do think across the country it's an American problem, not just a dance problem."
But don't start to think that the company is all about race. Philadanco dancers are proficient in styles ranging from neo-classical to jazz to hip-hop. They also implement the Horton Technique, a blend of Native American, Caribbean, Balinese, Afro-Brazilian, and other international dance styles.
Brown, who's still very much involved in Philadanco, makes a point to include works by African-American choreographers. "We're working with Lewis Johnson and George Faison to keep their work alive," Brown says. "It's not like it's going to be a Swan Lake that's going to be around forever, but they're works that African-American artists really didn't get the credit for."
Philadanco will host free dance workshops with local elementary, middle, and high school students the morning of Fri. Oct. 7.