Joan Myers Brown

National Medal of Arts recipient
Joan Myers Brown
  Photo courtesy of Philadanco!

Jo Reed: Joan Myers Brown. For her contributions as a dancer, choreographer and artistic director. Founder of the Philadelphia Dance Company, Ms. Brown carved out an artistic haven for African American dancers and choreographers to innovate, create, and share their unique visions with the national and global dance communities.  

That citation was read to an audience in the White House yesterday as Joan Myers Brown received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

Welcome to Art works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works, I’m your host, Josephine Reed.

Yesterday, dancer, artistic director and force of nature Joan Myers Brown was one of twelve artists who received a 2012 National Medal of Arts, which is the highest award  given to artists by the United States Government. As a child in Philadelphia, Joan Myers Brown loved ballet, but at that time was unable to find a school that would accept an African-American. So, as an adult, Joan took action. In 1960, Joan Myers Brown started the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts, supporting it with the money she earned as a dancer in nightclubs. After ten years, in 1970, she then founded the Philadelphia Dance Company known to all as Philadanco! Both the school and the company have gone on to enormous success--admitting neighborhood kids regardless of their ability to pay and turning them into professional dancers who are acclaimed around the world. Through it all, the company and the school have been guided by Joan as choreographer, artistic director, teacher, marketer, fundraiser, bill payer, cheer-leader and task master. Joan Myers Brown nurtures her dancers, students, and choreographers; but she demands discipline and rigor. Nothing escapes her attention but she is no prima donna. One of the staff in a New York City theater where Philadanco! regularly performs told me that Joan is one of a kind. While her dancers are onstage, Joan's often in the dressing room, washing or ironing costumes.  And when she leaves the theater at the end of the night, she moves the garbage pails from the dressing rooms to the hallway to make it easier for the cleaning crew.

So, it was particularly joyful occasion for many to see Joan Myers Brown receive the recognition of a National Medal of Arts.   When we spoke shortly before the White House ceremony,  Joan reflected on that time, when dance schools were closed to her and on her resolution to help the next generation of African American dancers.

Joan Myers Brown: Well, you're talking about in the '49/'50 era when the blacks were not doing ballet. I just was lucky enough to had a teacher in school that thought that if given the opportunity I could do it and I fell in love with ballet but it just never really happened.

Jo Reed: But you did dance.

Joan Myers Brown: Yes, I did. I ended up doing nightclub work and dancing with Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis and Cab Calloway, that era. Then I just decided that that was what I really wanted to do; I would open a dance school and perhaps give some youngsters the opportunity that I wasn't afforded.

Jo Reed: How long did you tour around with people like Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis Jr.?

Joan Myers Brown: From probably '54 to '62.

Jo Reed: What do you remember from that era?

Joan Myers Brown: Having a very good time dancing with people who loved to dance and getting the opportunity to tour around the country where I probably would never have left my neighborhood.

Jo Reed: And then at a certain point you decided to start a dance school back in Philadelphia.

Joan Myers Brown: Exactly, in my own neighborhood, in my own community, and I started with youngsters of parents I knew.

Jo Reed: And this was in 1960.

Joan Myers Brown: Exactly.

Jo Reed: And so there was some overlap of you still going out on the road and running the school.

Joan Myers Brown: Well, actually for six years I was traveling back and forth to Atlantic City, New Jersey, every night, dancing at night, teaching in the day, catching a bus every day for six years until I had finally made enough money to pay someone else so that I wouldn't have to do that.

Jo Reed: Wow. That is a lot of back and forth. From the beginning the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts you were really committed to offering inexpensive classes.

Joan Myers Brown: Well, I thought I would charge what people could afford to pay. Now I don't know if it was inexpensive or if it was expensive. We gave a lot of scholarships and we still give a lot of scholarships.

Jo Reed: And you also gave free shoes, dance wear and even carfare.

Joan Myers Brown: Still do.

Jo Reed: You still do.

Joan Myers Brown: Yep

Jo Reed: Money is always a struggle and I don't mean to imply that it isn't one now, but back in 1960 that really must have been very, very difficult.

Joan Myers Brown: Well, I think it was even easier then because people didn't expect as much from me as when we started the company and having responsibilities and compliances. It was easier then 'cause if you didn't have it you just did the next best thing.

Jo Reed: So it was before it was professionalized so to speak--

Joan Myers Brown: Exactly.

Jo Reed: Ten years go by and you decide that you're in fact going to begin a dance company, the Philadelphia Dance Company or Philadanco! with an exclamation point. Why the leap from school to company--

Joan Myers Brown: Well, you know, I trained these youngsters for ten years. When they started with me they were five, six, seven years old so-- and ten years later they're sixteen, seventeen and they want to-- "Okay. You've taught us how to dance; you beat us up and made us dance well. What are we going to do?" and I tried to send them off in Philadelphia to the ballet or other companies and they would bounce back to me saying they didn't want them and there were no opportunities. And, you know, I hate to beat a dead horse but there is still one black dancer in the ballet company here in Philadelphia so the-- that hasn't changed too much, but anyhow I told those guys-- I said, "Well, maybe if I give you some performing experience you'll think of going to New York or California or somewhere and dancing yourself." And they stayed with me-- the first group stayed with me eight, nine years before they started moving on and a lot of them went to the Ailey Company and some of them still go to the Ailey Company.

So anyhow I started the company to give my students an opportunity to perform and we started dancing in the neighborhoods for the department of recreation, for the ladies' auxiliary and the-- all the sororities that always wanted dancers to dance for free, and then I got my first NEA grant from the Expansion Arts program and we haven't looked back since.

Jo Reed: What did you use for a repertoire those first couple of years?

Joan Myers Brown: Well, I thought I was a choreographer and then I had friends that were choreographing and I got them to choreograph for me for free, and then I decided that I wasn't going to be the world's greatest choreographer, I better take care of the store, and I could hire choreographers and that way I'd give other black youngsters who wanted to be choreographers a place to work and the opportunity to grow.

Jo Reed: What was your first building for Philadanco!?

Joan Myers Brown: I was on the second floor above a children's retail store and they put me out because the dancers made too much noise.

Jo Reed: I was going to say-- And then where did you end up going?

Joan Myers Brown: I ended up over another store and then I ended up over a restaurant and then I was the pilot program for the National Endowment for the Arts Advancement Grant program and I was able to get a building and we are still in that building.

Jo Reed: 43 years later, the company has a very particular style that people can recognize. How did that develop?

Joan Myers Brown: I think it was a combination of my training, making sure that the dancers were technically trained but also I wanted to make sure that people enjoyed what we did and I think that was part of my show business background, entertaining, making sure audiences didn't leave a Philadanco! performance bored or thinking what the heck was that all about. They want to enjoy themselves when they go see dance and I think they still talk about the Philadanco! men because we always seemed to have big guys who looked good, I don't know -- and I think that's because at audition that's what I looked for.

Jo Reed: And they can move.

Joan Myers Brown: And they can dance, yes.

Jo Reed: They can dance. And I read that when you began you recruited football players.

Joan Myers Brown: Well, yeah. I needed guys and a friend of mine had a dance club at the West Philadelphia High School and she used the football players, you know, as walk-ons. I'm like "Do you think maybe I could get those guys to be in the company?" and they tried it and then in fact some of the guys are still dancing from that era when I started their teaching and still involved with dance.

Jo Reed: Building a repertoire it's kind of daunting in some ways. It gives you enormous freedom to have a repertory company but a lot of thinking has to go into scheduling and finding new work. What do you look for?

Joan Myers Brown: Well, I usually watch work. I go to see a lot of dance and especially young African American choreographers who are emerging and looking to develop their skills. I watch them for two or three years. I think Ron Brown I must have watched him-- he has a company called Evidence-- I watched him for maybe four years before I said, "I think maybe you want to try to do something on Philadanco!," and what I do is I give them a year. Most places when they hire a choreographer they give them two or three weeks and we usually take a year to develop a work and they have time to commit to it. I am working now with Rennie Harris who has a hip-hop group, which is something I never thought we would do, but we've incorporated his work into our repertory and I think it makes Philadanco! interesting that it isn't the same girl in a different dress all night.

Jo Reed: Yeah, and Rennie Harris choreographed Wake Up!, which actually became a pivotal work for him. It kind of put him on the map.

Joan Myers Brown: Well, you know, I think the kids when they get to do Wake Up! they are not worrying about are-- am I turned out, are my toes pointed, am I lifted. They can really just let go and just dance so I think they really enjoy it. He's also grown in his work. I gave him his first opportunity at a International Association of Dance Black Conference and he got picked up by Chuck Davis and he hasn't looked back since and-- but over that course of time from being just a street dancer he's developed his vocabulary and developed his skills so, you know, I like watching that happen.

Jo Reed: And you also can see that happen as people can move from the school to the company because you're also known for having a very rigorous training among all genres of dance.

Joan Myers Brown: Yep. You say "rigorous"; I say "yep." Yeah. I demand a lot but, you know, my dancers always say I may demand a hundred percent but I give them back a hundred and ten. I support them. I support their health; I support their living conditions; I support them helping them do the things they want to do. Camille Brown is working with my company now and I would send her a hundred dollars whenever I could when she was struggling, you know. So I think it's important to support the work of young artists.

Jo Reed: Are you the only company? You're one of the very few who gives their dancers a 52-week contract.

Joan Myers Brown: The last I heard there were six companies but now I think more of ballet companies with those big nine million dollar budgets are trying to do extended contracts with their dancers, and I think it's important that they know they have a job at least for a year rather than for 20 weeks or 30 weeks, that they know that they have some responsibility to themselves for at least a year.

Jo Reed: You also have built housing for them.

Joan Myers Brown: Well, we moved into a neighborhood that was dilapidated I guess for lack of a better word. We bought some of the houses that were falling down and we started renovating them to make apartments for the dancers. It got to be a lot of work and we ended up with six units, and so right now we still only have a few units left for the dancers but we try to keep the rent as low as possible so that they can afford to live alone rather than three or four on top of each other.

Jo Reed: How does ‘Danco sit in the neighborhood? I'm assuming it just isn't plopped in the neighborhood but that you're really a part of that community.

Joan Myers Brown: I think we are plopped in and a part of because when we first moved in people were like "A dance school. What-- we're going to have a lot of parking. We're going to—"  They gave me a hard way to go, but as we purchased buildings and renovated houses and the developers moved in around us and the children are involved with the school that we are now part of the community. Whenever there is a problem we are part of that-- solving the problems, and then the-- my mayor, Rendell, named my street Philadanco! Way so they can't get rid of us now.

Jo Reed: Joan, do you remember the first time you took the company abroad?

Joan Myers Brown: Actually, the first time they went abroad I didn't go with them--

Jo Reed: Oh, I'm sorry

Joan Myers Brown: -- but I remember the first time I went. We went-- the first time I went with them I went to Turkey and it was just thrilling that here I had a bunch of kids from west Philly that I was taking to Turkey.

Jo Reed: How did the Turkish people respond to Philadanco! and how did Philadanco! respond to the Turkish people?

Joan Myers Brown: I think for me I really loved Turkey. They love us. Wherever we go people love Philadanco! and I haven't ever been anywhere where they didn't love us and that makes me feel good, but last year we went to Macedonia. We were the first American company there and we had an opportunity to go to the gypsy camps, so those kind of things are important, not only just that we dance but that we interact with the communities we go to.

Jo Reed: You know, it's interesting how much of an international language dance is or can be.

Joan Myers Brown: Well, you know, it is. People enjoy beautiful bodies moving and they enjoy the music and so I think it all comes together when you travel with dancers.

Jo Reed: Now what makes a Philadanco! dancer a Philadanco! dancer?

Joan Myers Brown: We always say you have to get them dancoasized. I think the fact that-- the training schedule that we do. I've had the same teachers for years and I have teachers who aren't interested in showing what they know but interested in developing dancers so they are committed to the work that we do and also committed to the ethics that we teach and the demands that we make and so it works.

Jo Reed: Tell me about the ethics that you teach. What do you try to impart to your dancers?

Joan Myers Brown: Oh, the way they carry themselves, the way they dress when we travel, the way they respect teachers, the way they have to ask can they come in to class if they're late, being on time, all of the regular stuff that you have to demand from youngsters that seemingly these days don't get it from home.

Jo Reed: OK, let's say I am a Philadanco! dancer. What is my day like?

Joan Myers Brown: Well, I started the company on top of my school so I used to have my rehearsal time around the school because I was still making a living from my school so most of our rehearsals were in the evening, and I've maintained that so that a lot of the youngsters can go to college in the daytime, they can get better jobs if they want to supplement their income other than being a waiter or a waitress or a busboy. And so a lot of the dancers do have daytime jobs. Two of my dancers are in college now. And they find classes for themselves outside of the fact that I'm on the faculty at the University of the Arts so they can take classes there free. So a lot of them I see at eight o'clock in the morning going to class or going to yoga. Then they go to a job or if they have a second job and then they come in at seven o'clock at the studio and take class and then we rehearse until ten thirty or eleven at night. And, you know, people say, "You rehearse at night?" and I'm saying, "Yeah, but that works because when we perform at night they're used to dancing at night," so that kind of worked for us. We rehearse Saturdays and Sundays 'cause I'm building-- or still maintaining my company around my school so I have 30 teachers in my school now where it used to be just me.

Jo Reed: You also created two other company-- D2. Would you call it a company? It's an apprentice company.

Joan Myers Brown: It's an apprentice company. It's a bunch of youngsters who really want to perform and don't have that performing experience on their resumes so when they put Philadanco! on their resumes they always get a job so we have youngsters from the age of 15 to about 23 in the D2 program and they do all the things that people want us to do that they don't want to pay us to do. So I said, "Okay. Here's another opportunity for you to gain experience" and they also take classes with the company. They have their own schedule and it's been quite successful. Everywhere I go I'll meet somebody and say, "Weren't you in D2?" and they say, "Yep."

Jo Reed: And you also have a D3.

Joan Myers Brown: D3 is my youth group. Those are the youngsters from ten to 15 because I want to encourage the talented youth to continue with their-- encouraging their talent because so many of my girls and boys when they get their graduation from high school they stop dancing because the moms say, "You got to go to college," but now you can get a degree in dance and now you can have other things to do with dance around choreography, dance history. So now if I can encourage them young enough to want to pursue their careers and use their talents then I'm-- we're not losing them.

Jo Reed: How has the company changed over the years?

Joan Myers Brown: I think basically it has not changed; people have changed. I think that the dancers I get now are coming from institutions where their training isn't what it should be so we are retraining them. The dancers are injured more and my dancers used to never be injured and they come with injuries so that to me has changed. Trying to find support and money for the company is increasingly more difficult. If it weren't for New York-- Philadelphia Dance Company we'd be in trouble. I get national funding more so than local funding. I think local funding they want me to adhere to a set of rules and I guess I'm hard headed. I say, "If it ain't broke don't fix it." It's not a corporation; it's a dance company.

Jo Reed: What do they want you to do?

Joan Myers Brown: Have a COO, a CEO. I say, "I don't need that. I need a managing director that can fund raise." You know? They want you to go into that corporate structure. I know there are compliances and I always want to comply with the regulations but it's difficult.

Jo Reed: You run an operation that includes the school, the children's performing group, a junior company and the main ensemble. You founded the Philadelphia School of Dance Art, you founded Philadanco!, you were a founder of the International Conference of Black Dance Companies, and you founded the International Association of Blacks in Dance.

Joan Myers Brown: I think I have founder's disease 'cause I founded the correlation of African-American organizations and I founded-- I-- I've been on the founding thing for many years but I always see a need and I think that it's important to address the need especially in our community and if someone doesn't it doesn't happen.

Jo Reed: Now what was the need for the International Conference of Black Dance Companies?

Joan Myers Brown: Well, I was a member of Dance USA. I was on the board of directors and there was talk at that-- at the board meeting that people should think of considering diversifying their audiences and there was conversations saying, "Oh, no, we're not interested. They don't buy subscriptions. They don't do this" and I'm like "Well, I better take us and them out of there and start our own because if not we're not going to be included." So I held the first conference trying to think about the few people I knew that had black companies like mine and I contacted five women I knew around the country, and then I went through the dance directory and I addressed all the people that something said African, black, African American and invited them to Philadelphia; let's sit down and talk and figure out how we can help ourselves. And I thought it would be a few of us sitting around my kitchen table. I think 60 people showed up the first year and the last conference I think we had over 600 people so 25 years later I'm still doing that.

Jo Reed: And 25 years later there's still a need if you look at other dance companies.

Joan Myers Brown: Exactly. We were talking again-- as I said earlier the Pennsylvania Ballet still only has one black dancer. If it were not for the fact that there are the black Broadway shows now, Fela!-- well, Color Purple closed but Lion King, I think Motown, if those shows weren't open black dancers wouldn't be working, not as much as they want, because one of my dancers just went to the Addams Family; she's still the only black in the show. So if they don't get these opportunities in these all-black companies or all-black-- or predominantly I should say-- predominantly black companies, predominantly black shows then they're not going to be working.

Jo Reed: And what does the International Association of Blacks in Dance-- what's the mission of that organization?

Joan Myers Brown: Actually to support each other, to share resources, to provide performing opportunities. We can put on a conference and we will show 30 African American or predominantly black companies and a presenter will come see that whereas he won't go individually to 30 companies to see them, but at a conference they can see all the companies and possibly give them work. And also we share resources, we share dancers, we have a multi-company audition where ten companies look at the dancers at once and then we have maybe 50 or 60 dancers, they select the company they are interested in, and we-- I hired two dancers last year from the conference auditions that were from Oklahoma and I probably wouldn't have seen them if we hadn't had the conference. So there is the Black United Fund. A lot of my companies didn't know about the Black United Fund where you could apply for money and it's just-- it's a gathering where we share, talk about fundraising, we talk about marketing, all the things as they affect us as a people.

Jo Reed: Now let me ask you about being a predominantly black dance company and how that is working with presenters.

Joan Myers Brown: You know, if you look at a roster of any dance series in any city in the United States, there's going to be one predominantly African American company so it'll start with Ailey, then it'll be Ailey two, then they say, "Okay. It'd be Philadanco! or isn't there another one? Oh, yeah. Well, I heard of one called Dallas Black or Cleo Parker Robinson," or there's going to be a flavor of the month, Alonzo King or Bill T. Jones, whoever, but it's always after the fact, "oh, we don't have a black company or a predominantly black company on our series."

Jo Reed: How do you deal with that?

Joan Myers Brown: You try to hope that you get hired this year, but having a good agent sort of helps that-- to be on people's rosters. We rotate on a lot of rosters.

Jo Reed: But the chances of seeing Alvin Ailey and Philadanco! in the same festival not so good.

Joan Myers Brown: Never.

Jo Reed: Never.

Joan Myers Brown: Never. Well, we were working in, and I'll tell you this, in a place-- in Germantown, Tennessee, where they would alternate us. One year he would do Ailey because it cost him a lot of money and the next year he would do Danco so he could make up for the fact that he lost money last year. I mean that was what he told me, you know.

Jo Reed: Now tell me. When you began the school 53 years ago, the company 43 years ago could you ever envision that you would have done so much?

Joan Myers Brown: You know, absolutely not. I just enjoyed teaching children and I thought that’s what I would be doing and then I had my own family for a few years. I was home with two babies so there wasn't too much I could do, and in the midst of that I started Danco and then I was lucky to have good friends and good support of neighbors and community. So I was able to do it all but it kept growing and I'm-- and when they started talking about going overseas I'm like "Nuh uh. I got to get up in the morning and get my kids to school" so I had to wait really until they were self-sufficient before I could think of even touring internationally.

 Jo Reed: What's your goal for Philadanco! now?

Joan Myers Brown: Well, I'm trying to maintain. I'm trying to make sure that at my age I-- you never know-- I want to make sure there is a plan in place for the future so that Philadanco! can continue. I want to step out of the administrative fundraising meetings. I want to step out of that and just concentrate and enjoy being with the dancers. I don't mind traveling. After this award, we get the award at one o'clock, at seven o'clock I'm on a plane to Chile to meet my company. That's what I want to spend the rest of my life being a part of the dancers' world, not trying to figure out how am I going to pay their-- the bills.

Jo Reed: And who can blame you for that. I think it's valiant you stuck in the bill-paying part this long.

Joan Myers Brown: Still.

Jo Reed: Still. Joan Myers Brown, thank you so much. Thank you for years of just wonderful, wonderful dancing.

Joan Myers Brown: Thank you so very much.

Jo Reed: That was the founder and artistic director of Philadanco! And a 2012 National of Medal of Arts recipient, Joan Myers Brown.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

 Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Excerpts from "For Eric: piano study" from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.

Special thanks to the Joyce Theater in New York City.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U---just click on the itunes link on our podcast page.

Next week, the director of The loving Story, Nancy Buirski

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Founder of Philadanco!, Joan Myers Brown reflects on what goes into building a leading African-American dance company and school. [27:29]