Joan Myers Brown (Philadanco)

Accidental ambassadors

Philadanco celebrates 40 years of dance this year, having grown from modest roots to become one of Philadelphia’s greatest arts exports.

By Naila Francis

It was 1980 when Kim Bears-Bailey sat in the audience at Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts to see her first Philadanco show.

A freshman at the University of the Arts’ School of Dance, Bears-Bailey had been invited by one of the school’s staff members, who happened to have two tickets.

She went grudgingly, plagued by a bad toothache but still curious enough to see Lloyd Whitmore, a UofA student and a Philadanco dancer, onstage.

“For that hour and a half to two hours, that toothache was nowhere to be found. I was just blown away,” says Bears-Bailey. “The ladies were strong and elegant and sensual and dynamic, and the men were all that, with a little bit more power and strength. They went the gamut from ballet to modern to ethnic and jazz. … They just sucked you in.”

By the second semester of her freshman year, she had joined the company.

Bears-Bailey, who is now in her 20th year as Philadanco‘s assistant artistic director, can still remember her audition number — 14 — and the feeling of walking through the company’s doors for the first time.

“It felt like home. It was like the doors just opened for you and welcomed you,” she recalls. “My life changed, my world changed, my spirit changed that day ….”

But while her experience dancing with Philadanco was more than she ever hoped for, when Bears-Bailey talks about the veteran institution, it is inevitable that the conversation turns to founder Joan Myers Brown.

And as the internationally acclaimed modern dance company celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, the milestone is as much a tribute to Brown as it is to the reputation Philadanco has built for virtuoso displays of athleticism, speed, grace and exuberance.

“She’s everything you could imagine in terms of leadership qualities. She’s mentoring, nurturing — everything that your spirit and your soul and your artistry needs, she’s right there to give it to you,” says Bears-Bailey, who has been with the company for 29 years, 19 of them as a dancer.

While Philadanco celebrates its achievements, the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts, which gave rise to the company, marks 50 years of training students of all ages and backgrounds. A separate Instruction and Training Program offers 40 weeks of rigorous education by nationally renowned teachers, while a summer training program and two additional companies — the Danco 2 Apprentice group and the Danco 3 Youth Ensemble — allow young students with promising potential to further cultivate their talents.

And so it’s a big year for Brown. But for the trailblazing pioneer, the many accolades and honors she’s received over the years, while all deeply appreciated, don’t fill her with the same kind of pride she gets from her own dancers’ accomplishments.

While many have gone on to impressive careers either solo or with the likes of companies such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a career in dance is not necessarily the ultimate goal.

“There are people who just become good people,” says Brown, noting the discipline and dedication that dancers learn are skills transferable to all areas of life. “As long as there’s a positive outcome — that’s what I care about.”

As she looks forward to a 40th anniversary jubilee performance at the Kimmel Center this week and the 50th anniversary arts recital of the School of Dance in May, Brown remains ever practical and modest.

“It feels like there’s still work to be done,” says the woman known as Mom, Aunt Joan and JB to the many who populate Philadanco‘s headquarters in a three-story building in West Philadelphia.

As both executive and artistic director, the Philadelphia native has been looking for someone to take over the administrative duties that occupy much of her time. Her days at the ever-bustling building on a small street that was renamed Philadanco Way by the City of Philadelphia in 1995, easily average 17 hours each.

“I started this position because I started watching her,” says Bears-Bailey, one of several former dancers to return to Philadanco to serve in another capacity. “She’s still the first one here in the morning and the last one to leave. She’s still washing costumes, still sewing. … You never hear her say ‘No’ or ‘I can’t,’ and she does it all with such elegance and grace and style.

“I don’t know how she does it, but it’s all about making it better for the next generation.”

Yet for all its international renown, Philadanco is in many ways an accidental company.

Brown, now in her mid-70s, aspired to be a ballerina in her youth but had to give up those dreams when confronted with the lack of opportunities for an African American to dance ballet professionally in the 1950s. So she fashioned her career as she could, dancing for artists like Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis Jr., in night clubs and on theater stages. She started her school in 1960 to provide training to other young black dancers encountering struggles similar to her own.

“I thought I’d train some black youngsters and that would open up some opportunities for them. But then these kids I started teaching, after going through the program, they would say, ‘You taught us all this stuff … what are we going to do now?’ ” recalls Brown.

“I thought I would let them dance around the city, they’d form a little group and then be gone. I thought it would just be a phase — that the kids would stay two, three years, but then they started staying for nine and 10. And then there was me saying, ‘We’re dancing a lot. We should be getting paid for this.’ ”

She formed Philadanco in 1970, borrowing football players from West Philadelphia High School to dance with the girls in the company — “That set the tone for the men in Philadanco: big, muscular, gorgeous men,” says Brown — and received her first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts two years later.

Today, the opportunities she stove so hard to create are still somewhat limited. While modern dance has greatly embraced black dancers, positions are still sparse in ballet and on Broadway, she says. And Philadanco, whose movement is rooted in Caribbean, African and urban street influences, still struggles with some of the stereotypes that have traditionally plagued black dance.

“There’s a black aesthetic in dance,” says Brown. “As a people, we’re so celebratory. We’re into movement and joy and that translates into what we do. … We’ve been told we’re too entertaining, we’ve been told we’re too commercial, we’ve been told we’re not intellectual enough. We’re always struggling to prove that what we do is valid.”

In 1988, Brown founded the International Association of Blacks in Dance, which hosts an annual conference drawing hundreds of participants from around the world, to address some of those issues and share valuable resources. But despite her struggles, as well as the increasing financial constraints faced by arts organizations nationwide in recent years, retirement or even slowing down are hardly imminent.

“For a while, I was thinking nothing lasts forever,” says Brown, “but the opportunity Philadanco presents to young dancers has to continue.”

And that opportunity, for those who walk through its doors, remains a singular one.

“This is the one place where you’re able to grow and learn and experience and explore and travel the globe. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that this would be possible in one place,” says Bears-Bailey. “It’s like being in a candy store. You will never get to the bottom of that jar.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer