Black History Month: Honoring Philadelphia dance legend Joan Myers Brown

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Thursday, February 8, 2024
Honoring Philadelphia dance legend Joan Myers Brown
Black History Month: Honoring Philadelphia dance legend Joan Myers Brown

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Black History Month is a time to look back on those who created a lasting legacy. Philadelphia's own Joan Myers Brown has shaped the culture by overcoming barriers to create a lasting legacy of dance.

As her work has been seen around the world, 92-year-old Brown has created much of it in Philadelphia's Powelton section inside a building that is home to the Philadanco Dance Studio.

"Anybody that's gone to my dancing school will (call me) Aunt Joan," said Brown, "but the kids who come in the company, they call me JB and a few other things I'm sure they call me when I get on their nerves."

Brown is just as much of a firecracker as she is a legendary dancer.

"I danced with Pearl Baily, Sammy Davis, Billy Daniels, and I toured with Cab Calloway," she said of a few of the entertainment legends in whose shows she danced.

In the 1950s, Brown performed with historic headliners in Atlantic City and beyond.

"We were in Vegas, Central Park, New York," she said mentioning some of her tour travels.

Brown spent years performing on stage, but it wasn't the stage she dreamt of.

"I ended up being a nightclub dancer when I wanted to be a ballet dancer," she said.

With the walls of Philadanco adorned with photos of Brown in perfect position wearing pointe shoes, Brown shared the story of her ballet dreams. They began in elementary school and took off in high school where she received training, but not really opportunity, as a Black ballerina.

"Most of the time, it didn't give you what you deserved," she said.

Her career was stifled by racism even as a nightclub performer.

"I was in Miami Beach. I had to have a card to be in Miami Beach at night," Brown said of some of the segregation she was subject to even as a performer.

It's why once her nightclub years were over, she created her own dance school in 1960. In 1970, she started her own dance company: Philadanco.

"I came up with the name Philadanco: Philadelphia Dance Company," she said.

Through the years, Brown's dance school and company have trained some recognizable names.

"I have a long list of dancers, Leslie Odom, Lee Daniels. One of my dancers got a Broadway show," she said.

It's Brown's name, however, that keeps coming up when anyone speaks of legends of African American Dance. With too many awards to count on display in the lobby of Philadanco, one award still stands out.

"When I got my award from Obama, that's when I knew that I had done something right," said Brown.

In 2012, she was awarded the National Medal of the Arts. It's the nation's highest civic honor for excellence in the arts.

As she works to expand Philadanco, Brown also works to expand opportunities for young, Black dancers. She focuses on providing them the best training.

"We've set a bar," she said with a smile referencing a nearby ballet bar. "You've got to be the best at what you're doing so others know what best is."

It's all in the name of giving someone else the opportunity that eluded her.

"I'm 92," she said "I'm like 'why am I still here?' I got work to do."