Fifty years ago, Joan Myers Brown began to realize very few career opportunities were available to the young black girls who had been a part of a dancing school she had begun a decade earlier.
“Black girls weren’t being hired by ballet companies,” she said. So, she decided to start her own company to introduce them to modern dance, teaching them, “If you’re going to be a dancer, you need to be equipped to do anything and everything you’re asked to do.”
She exposed them to many difference forms of dance and modern dance, she said, “so they would be prepared” and have more opportunities to pursue a dance career.
Soon, Brown began getting requests for her dancers to perform at various events. For a time, they did it for free. But then, she decided to establish a 501c3, began fundraising, and as she says, ‘it’s been going ever since.”
In 2020, the Philadelphia Dance Company — known as PHILADANCO — will celebrate 50 years.
As a kickoff to that anniversary, the company last month hosted an event featuring Leslie Odom, one of PHILADANCO’s former students, who became well-known for his role as Aaron Burr in the popular musical, “Hamilton”.
Their 50th year as a company next year will be full of both European and American tours. Typically, the company performs about 40 weeks of the year.
Brown said some of her dancers have moved on to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – a coveted school, she said, in the black dance community.
PHILADANCO recently completed a four-day event in Las Vegas. Brown said the city had invited the company to come, teach classes in the community, and introduce more culture into the area.
They will perform at the Weis Center in Lewisburg on Tuesday.
“We’re excited for the return of the renowned PHILADANCO!” said Kathryn Maguet, executive director of the Weis Center. She called Brown a “legendary dance leader”.
“PHILADANCO continues its rich heritage by continuing to highlight the work of superbly trained dancers and choreographers who are committed to sharing outstanding innovation, creativity and preservation of predominantly African American traditions in dance,” she said.
Where once black dancers had few opportunities, PHILADANCO has become an in-demand performance group, with audiences that come from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
The company consists of 14-16 professionally-trained men and women dancers. Brown said the repertoire is varied, often consisting of jazz, ballet, and what is termed “neoclassical ballet” – “a fusion of ballet and modern”, she said.
She described the dancers as not only talented, but well-trained.
“They are truly professional,” she said. “They’re serious about their work.”
Brown said they make efforts to develop a program in which there is “something for everybody.” While most men don’t like ballet, she said, “after they see PHILADANCO, they like dance.”
She especially enjoys going to college communities that have dance programs, so that they can show them that opportunities for a dance career are attainable – “especially for people of color,” she said.
Since its founding 50 years ago, the company has grown to include four companies. The three in addition to the main company, are a junior company that performs for community events, a youth group, and a children’s group that was begun last year.
The International Association of Blacks in Dance, established in 1991, addresses the special needs of the African American dance community. The association produces an annual conference.
Brown has received many honors and rewards, including an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Ursinus College, and an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She is listed in “Who’s Who in America”.
In 2012, Brown received the nation’s highest civic of honor for excellence in the arts — the National Medal of Arts, presented by former President Barack Obama.