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Philadanco's Joan Myers Brown continuing a vision for racial equality in dance

by Lewis J Whittington
January 28, 2017
Two days before leaving for the 28th annual International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) in Dallas, Philadanco director Joan Myers Brown, was auditioning dancers for her main and apprentice dance companies. The energy was electric and by 5pm, anyone would have understood if Brown needed to take a break. Instead she bounded down the stairs to her office, dressed in black jeans and a Danco t-shirt to face a long list of details before she was to leave for the conference but still gamely insisting “I have plenty of time to talk.”

Brown and her artistic staff had just finished assessing 32 dancers for consideration in Philadanco and 40 others for Danco2 and their trainer program. “Like I told some of the girls today,” Brown said, “I can’t hire you all but if you can get to Dallas ten companies can see you.” She was further was glad to report that the Dance Theatre of Harlem was going to do the same thing in New York this year for dancers who couldn’t get to Dallas.

Indeed, Brown has been a leading force in the U.S. advocating for black dancer diversity on the classical ballet stage for decades. She was a black ballerina herself in the 1950s and should have been a principal dancer somewhere, but was met with ballet's status quo of unapologetic racism and exclusion.

In Philadelphia Brown changed dance education and the industry as founder of the Philadanco School in 1960 and Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco)in 1971. Her advocacy work for industry-wide dance diversity has never wavered. In 1991 she established IABD, and serves as honorary chairperson to this day. IABD brings together dance administrators, agents, artistic directors, artists, choreographers, executive directors, presenters, service providers from all over the world.

IABD is in a different city every year. “The fact that we keep moving it to different cities keeps it going strong,” Brown says.

Dallas Black Dance Theatre is hosting the 28th IABD January 25-29, 2017 with over 700 participants attending for a packed itinerary over four days of industry networking, strategizing, workshops, master classes, lectures, panels and performances.

There might be an industry prevailing attitude that black dancers would gravitate toward Philadanco, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Complexions and other predominantly black dance companies and that is certainly true, but the fact that a qualified black ballerina can show up at an audition in 2017 for a classical ballet company and be the only black dancer there speaks volumes.

Despite the advances of individual dancers like Misty Copeland, it is still an ongoing reality that qualified black and brown ballet dancers still face routine exclusion trying to get hired by classical ballet companies.

Last year, Brown took more direct action at Denver's IABD conference by convening the first Ballet Audition for Women of Color that provided a platform ballerinas to audition in front of 17 artistic directors from around the country. "That [directors] realize there are black girls that who can do this and they need to look for them.

For too long Brown has routinely heard from artistic directors that there are no black ballet dancers auditioning, her answer to them is a qualified “because you don’t look.” Brown says there needs to be an effort of inclusion. "The color issue, in the line-up of the Swan corps, for instance, they say doesn’t work. We want to make sure girls are trained - before the lack of training was one of the issues - so we want to make sure they are trained if they have the potential and don’t get lost.”

The Denver initiative resulted in 25 dancers being awarded scholarships from companies and two women receiving contract offers right away. “I’m always trying to think of things that help the field. It’s not just about Philadanco,” Brown said.

Brown also said she was encouraged and that at this year's IABD conference in Dallas there will be another Ballet Audition for Women of Color. It will only “be part of it,” she reminded. “We also have the auditions for the ten contemporary companies. We don’t want to make it a situation where IABD is the exclusive place for black dancers to audition,” adding “Actually, I’m hoping after this year, we won’t have to do this again.

Next year’s 30th conference will be held in Los Angeles, CA hosted by Lula Washington Dance Theatre and 2019 will be in Dayton, OH hosted by Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. There is a push by organizers to try to get Philadelphia to be the host city for 2020 because it will be Philadanco’s 50th anniversary. Stay tuned.

Brown jokes about her age and what it would mean in the amount of work to host it again, but hopefully they will give her an offer she can’t refuse. After Dallas, Brown flies back to Philly and the next day Philadanco goes back on tour “We go to Augusta, GA. Then NBC is doing a special on Philadanco for Black History Month. And then back here with my 3rd company showcase, those kids have a concert in February.”

Whether Joan Myers Brown is guiding student ballerinas on a rainy Sunday afternoon in her studios, or addressing the hundreds of dance artists from around the world at IABD, her vision, energy and fearless heart continues to make an indelible impact on the world of dance.

For more information on the International Association of Blacks in Dance go to: www.iabdassociation.org

For Philadanco tour information visit www.philadanco.org
Joan Myers Brown and Brenda Dixon Gottschild at the 2017 IABD Conference in Dallas.

Joan Myers Brown and Brenda Dixon Gottschild at the 2017 IABD Conference in Dallas.

Photo © & courtesy of Brenda Dixon Gottschild

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