Joan Myers Brown—founder and artistic director of the internationally renowned Black dance company, PHILADANCO!—was on tour in Switzerland with 15 young dancers when the world shut down because of COVID-19.
In this TIME IN interview, she talks about shepherding those dancers home to her beloved Philadelphia community, getting to know her neighbors, and continuing to work to train, mentor, and promote opportunities for Black ballet dancers.
Known as Aunt Joan, or JB, to her PHILADANCO! family, she's a powerhouse of artistic energy and warmth, and a passionate advocate for Black dancers. As she will tell you, she's nearly 90 years old and has seen a lot. No pandemic can dampen this woman's spirits or her determination to create opportunities for her dancers to shine.
She grew up loving to dance, studying ballet, but finding work in the night club circuit—dancing, choreographing and performing with big name entertainers, including Sammy Davis, Jr, Cab Calloway, and Pearl Bailey.
When in 1960, 29-year-old Joan left her job as a nightclub dancer to go home to West Philadelphia to teach ballet to neighborhood kids, she couldn't have imagined that her school and the dance company that grew out of it would change the world.
She couldn't have imagined that in 1988 she would found an international conference of Black dance; that over the next decades she would be honored with awards in America and abroad, including the 2012 National Medal of Arts, presented by President Barack Obama.
"I just love teaching and that's what I started off doing—teaching children. And then, of course, in the '60s, segregation was still prominent. So I'd send my dancers out once I trained them; then they bounced back to me and I said, "What am I doing with these kids? They should be dancing!" And that's why I started the company."
As the 2020 pandemic began causing much of the world to shut down, Joan was in Switzerland on tour with 15 dancers, and got word that they had a limited time to get home before the U.S. border would close. "In the middle of a performance, I told my kids, 'Come on, pack up, we're leaving.' We took a six-hour bus ride from Switzerland to Germany to catch a flight out of Frankfurt; a nine-hour flight from Frankfurt to America." They landed in Newark and took a bus to Philly.
"If it was just me, I might have been a little more adventurous, but I had to get those kids home. "
Joan and I met on Zoom to talk about family, her dancers, and why the pandemic hasn't really kept her down. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
So what has life been like for you since you arrived home from Switzerland with your dancers?
Well, you know what? I'm busier than I've ever been, because everything is right here with me. My living room is IBD, which the conference became —the International Association of Blacks in Dance. And then my front room is the PHILADANCO! office. My dining room is my dance school office, and my kitchen is where I relax."
Do you cook for yourself?
Well, actually my father was a chef, so I had to learn to cook. During the war, after school, I had to go home and start dinner, and I would experiment. So everybody says, I'm a good cook. I'm not cooking too much right now. I get tired of cooking. I try to cook more at home, but not as much as I should.
Do you have any favorite dishes to make?
Of course, everybody likes spaghetti!
It sounds as if you're busy; what kind of things are you doing?
Well, actually trying to fundraise continuously, I work with my development people every day. I still work with my artistic crew, because we've had to continue to work with choreographers online, virtually.
Here's "Enemy Behind the Gate," put together during the pandemic:
We had to finish ballets that we were supposed to do at the Kimmel Center. She laughs. I'm 'Zoomed out.' But it's really good because we have an opportunity to talk with people face-to-face [when otherwise] you might just write a letter.
How are the kids in your classes doing?
We had a class last night. We have a large parking lot, so we had an open class in the parking lot. Everybody bought their mat. That's probably about the fifth time we've done that. We have a lot of classes online. But the office work, and the planning—every day you plan. The next day, [you] change plans because that's not going to work anymore.
You also have grown children and grandchildren. Are they around?
They all live in close proximity. This morning, my daughter drove her teenager down to North Carolina State. She's a diver and NCS gave her a pretty good opportunity. She's the only Black diver in the United States of America in that age group! She's 16 now.
How has your home life been?
Well, actually I thought these were the golden years. You know, if you get to a certain age, you think you're going to do a lot of nothing, but that's not the case with me. I continue to work right now, not that I want to. I thought I was going to retire, but people have jobs and they're looking to their future and the future's bleak. So they're making moves and it leaves me with doing what I do.
Do you have any downtime just to relax?
Yeah. Between 11:30 pm, when I go to bed and 6:30 am, when I get up. And I walk every morning. Actually, a neighbor and I walk from 7 to 8:30 every morning. We know all of West Philadelphia now, all the campuses, all the reconstruction, all of everything. That's good for me, though, because I get out of the house.
Did you do [the walking] before the pandemic hit?
No. It's a new thing—the walking every morning—but I'm religious. I get up and do it. Some mornings, I'm like, 'Do I really want to do this?' But we've been pretty religious since late March. We started at 5 o'clock in the morning. And then we said, "Oh, let's go a little later." So we now go from 7 to 8:30.
What do you like about the walk?
There's so much going on in West Philadelphia. So much change; in fact, too much change, because the student housing is now where there used to be homes. You'd see old people sitting on the porch, and kids playing, and skating, and jumping rope. All these houses are now being converted into apartments, and there's trash everywhere. So the neighborhood has changed. A lot of it is for the good. And some of it—you wish it hadn't changed.
I'm a West Philly girl. So, you know, I went to West Philadelphia High School; I went to Shaw Junior High School. So I love West Philly.
So do you think you'll keep walking after things open up?
It depends on how much help I have in the office early, or what I have to do, but I want to plan on that, because it's really good for me. It gives me a push to get started in the morning. You gotta try it! When you drive, you don't see the area around you, but when you walk, you see a lot.
Have you turned to any particular music, favorite music or videos or books?
I watch a lot of dance videos; Jacob's Pillow and the Joyce Theater have good programs. And then I listen to our Philadelphia Orchestra [which has]wonderful music. I just love music and I love movement.
Here's Philadanco at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in 2018:
And Gene Hill Sagan was one of my choreographers. He went to Israel for 14 years, looking for a place to dance and he worked with the Batsheva and kibbutz companies. He got all kinds of awards in Israel. When his mother got ill, he returned to Philadelphia, and a friend told him, look for me. He ended up choreographing for my company. And I love his work.
Watch this PHILADANCO! video with excerpts of choreography by Gene Hill Sagan, Bebe Miller, Christopher Huggins, Ulysses Dove, and Tommie Waheed-Evans.
La Valse is my favorite ballet that he ever did for the company. It's neoclassical because he was balletically trained. All his work is fundamentally balletic; it's a beautiful piece.
Has there been anything else you've discovered during this shutdown period?
Personally, I've gotten to know my neighbors, because I usually left work so early in the morning and then I would come back so late at night, I very seldom knew my neighbors. And now when I have this escape from my kitchen and just take a walk, I get to talk to some of my neighbors. I met a girl across the street; I had taught her mother. I taught her and I'm teaching her daughter. There are four generations of me around!
Sounds wonderful. Have you had to counsel students or dancers on what it's going to be like on the other side of this pandemic?
Not so much my students, but the members of the company, the professionals that all they ever did was dance. A lot of them don't have a second career. And I tell them, "Now this is your down time. Spend that time thinking, what are you going to do when you can't dance anymore? And start preparing for it."
I remember a couple of the girls in my company. They got masters while we went tour, You'd look in the back of the bus, there'd be a light on. They were online doing their homework. And now they're teaching at Rutgers and University of Oklahoma and Howard.
I would think the discipline involved in learning dance would give you advantages no matter what you do.
Yes. [Former Philadelphia] council woman Blondell Reynolds Brown was one of my dancers. And she says all the time that having been a dancer and being under me, [she learned] you don't just dance, there's responsibility to dance. That it really made a difference in her life and her life skills
Do you have a philosophy of life that you can counsel young people with today about how to keep going, even when there are obstacles in your way?
Well, you know, I have a sign hanging in my studio that says, "I will prepare myself. And one day my chance will come."
So I always say, if you're not prepared—It's a standing joke with the company that goes: "If they ask you, can you do an eyelash stand?" You say, "Yes!"
You have to be ready to do whatever they ask, because you don't know where you're going to end up and what the job is going to require. It means you might dance for Beyonce, but it doesn't mean you still can't be in a ballet company.
I'm trying very hard to make the ballet companies be more integrated, because we think that the ballet company should look like America. There are so many wonderful dancers. Like I keep saying, Misty [Copeland] was not the first one. There were many girls before her who just didn't get a chance.
You've done so much, but as you say, there's still a way to go.
Exactly. They also have to have Black teachers, they have to have Black people that work in the office. They have to have people that are sensitive to not only Black, but people of color—Asian, Mexican, Latino , Puerto Rican, you know, everybody has a different aesthetic about their lives and themselves. And there has to be someone who can relate to that.
Do you feel optimistic about the future?
Never know. There's so much unrest in this whole country. I always say, being Black in America is just being Black in America. Because when we go to Europe where we're welcomed and celebrated, it feels so different.
You just feel more comfortable and more at ease. You know, my boys could walk the streets in Germany at one, two o'clock in the morning, looking for a Pizza Hut. But without worrying about somebody stopping them, [asking] why are you out, where are you going? You know, it's just not a comfortable place to be in sometimes.
Sometime my daughter says, "Mom, don't you dare walk by yourself!" I'm like, "why not?" "Just don't go. It's not safe." You know, we shouldn't have to feel like that.
But what can I say, I'm going to be 90 next year. Even though I won't be 89 'til this year. I like it when someone says, "Oh, she looks good for age!"
[She laughs, then turns serious.] But at 90 years I've lived through the Great Depression, this war, that war, the AIDS epidemic, all the things I've seen; every year is something, and some of that stuff should just go away.
So what has kept you going? Is it the love of dance? How do you feel today when you watch your students or your dancers dance?
Well, I'm always thrilled when I stand in the back of the theater and see the crowds come to their feet for my dancers. They're professionals. But it's that little four-year-old girl in my school. Cause you know, I have two schools now and she'll say to me, "I can't wait til I can be in PHILADANCO!"
Then I know that it has to continue.