When Joan Myers Brown first started to study ballet in the 1930s, dance schools were segregated and opportunities for professional ballet careers for African-American dancers were nearly nonexistent. Nonetheless, she stuck with her training.
Myers Brown studied with a white friend in the mornings before school, and she managed to become one of the first African-American dancers in a class taught at the Ballet Guild of Philadelphia. She faced racism at the beginning of her ballet career and eventually left ballet to travel the country as a member of a professional chorus. But years later she found herself drawn home to Philadelphia where she founded The Philadelphia Dance Company, better known as Philadanco. Joan Myers Brown speaks with host Frank Stasio about her start in performing and the energetic, audacious style of dance she helped establish.
Philadanco presents “Straight Outta Philly,” a modern and contemporary performance in collaboration with Rennie Harris Puremovement on Oct. 18 at 8 p.m. at North Carolina State University’s Stewart Theatre in Raleigh.
On her fight to study ballet as a black woman:
I ended up being a nightclub dancer because I couldn't get a job as a ballet dancer. In fact I couldn't even go to a non-black school in the city of Philadelphia until maybe Antony Tudor came to Philadelphia from England and allowed us to come into his classes, and I was the first black student.
On her correspondence with African-American ballet legend Janet Collins:
I sent her a photograph of me thinking of was looking marvelous. And she sent me a note back: “straighten your knees and keep at it – keep studying."
On a racist review for her role in a ballet:
The review was not saying 'Joan Myers.’ It said … “The ballet was wonderful except the fly in the buttermilk.” So we always knew they meant me – the dark spot in the ballet.
On fighting for black dancers:
When you grow up in segregation there are things you just expect, and you just let them roll off you, and you say that's part of your life. You hope as I got older to be able to do away with some of those problems. And that's something I'm still working at. We're auditioning girls still now – black girls – trying to get them into major ballet companies … I'm still trying to get black girls into ballet because I think ballet companies have to start looking like America. Can't be lily white forever.