Joan Myers Brown

H. Fitzgerald “Gerry” & Marguerite Lenfest
Alice S. Bast

At the age of seventeen, Joan Myers Brown decided to become a professional ballet dancer. Of African-American and Jewish heritage, Brown had discovered that racial discrimination was pervasive in Philadelphia’s ballet community, so she commuted to New York City to take lessons with African-American dance pioneer Katherine Dunham. She also had the good fortune to study with Antony Tudor of the Philadelphia Dance Guild, who chose her for a lead role in “Les Sylphides.” The casting of an African-American dancer, Brown recalled, “caused a stir but I was in heaven.” Her parents, however, wanted her to attend college, and her father, in particular, was sternly against her pursuing a ballet career—“Girl, are you crazy? There’s no future for black ballerinas.’’

E arly in her career, Brown went “where the money was,” touring as a member of dance revues for Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Yet, this was not the type of dancing she wanted to do. In 1960 Brown started her own dance school in West Philadelphia called the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts. The school grew quickly, attracting primarily African-American students, including many from low-income homes. Brown became frustrated as many of her most exceptional students quit or moved to New York City because Philadelphia lacked opportunities. So, in 1970 Brown and Mary Sherrill started the Philadelphia Dance Company, better known today as Philadanco, as a vehicle for professional success for minority dancers. At its outset the troupe consisted of 17 star pupils from her dance school. As artistic director and chief administrator, Brown was responsible for selecting and guiding the dancers and choreographers, raising funds and controlling expenses, and securing venues for performances. After one year of operation, the budget for her entire company was only $15,000. In 1982 Brown moved the company from its small, confining quarters at 6249 Market St. to a new location at 9 Preston St. in University City, with three spacious studios, dressing rooms, offices, and a small performance center.

From its inception, Philadanco was a modern dance company, but ballet, tap, jazz and African dance were incorporated into many of their performances. The company has always been racially integrated, but the majority of the dancers are African-American and many of its dances express themes related to the black experience. The music is as eclectic as the dance styles—a typical evening performance consisting of three or four dances might include classical music by Bach, Berlioz and Tchaikovsky; classic jazz by Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus; rock by Santana and Prince; soul music by Aretha Franklin and the Supremes; and African music and rhythms. Philadanco is often praised by critics for its “rocketing energy” and adventuresome choreography. Symbolic of its artistic triumph, Philadanco was chosen as the resident dance company at the Kimmel Center in 2000.

B rown was crucial to this success. She created an atmosphere in the company that was supportive and familial, where the dancers often called her “mom” or “Aunt Joan.” At the same time, she pressed hard for the dancers to achieve ever more. Brown set the artistic tone—daring, diverse in style, technically challenging, and entertaining. She kept the books balanced and was a superb fundraiser. Typically, she worked 12 to 14 hour days. Brown is invariably described as extremely energetic, enthusiastic, and charming, with an “iron will.” When presenting the Philadelphia Award in 2009, Donald Parks praised Brown for breaking down racial barriers in dance, and for her influence having “touched countless individuals over the years.”.