Amazing Grace: Philadanco celebrates 35 years

July 31, 2007
“Once you come in that door, the arms embrace you. It’s a rare jewel here—just a little piece of heaven.
Aunt Joan doesn’t know any other way to be. She’s a nurturer, a fighter, a giver, a believer.” —Kim Bears-Bailey
Walk into the Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco) School of Dance Arts building and, like Dorothy, you know you are no longer in Kansas. You are somewhere over the rainbow, in “the world according to Joan Myers Brown,” who founded both organizations as a way to provide African American dancers in Philadelphia with quality training and a professional performance outlet. Parents, teenage teaching assistants, children, and the ever-present faculty and staff populate the first and second floor lobbies and studios, combining work with chatter and convivial exchange. Former company member Karen Still-Pendergrass, the school administrator, serves up advice with the invoices while cradling a teacher’s sleeping baby in her arms. The stairwells of this compact, three-story edifice are lined with vintage posters, autographed photos, and awards presented to Joan Myers Brown over the years. In fact, the short West Philadelphia street dominated by this building was re-named Philadanco Way by the City of Philadelphia in 1995.
One’s first and lasting impression is, “This institution is not institutionalized!”
But the homespun, mom-and-pop setting is deceptive. Philadanco is a world-class company known for its technical mastery and dramatic soul. It is hailed for its exquisite soloists, exceptional ensemble work, and expansive repertoire. Philadanco dancers combine sensational technique and luxuriant energy; they exude an affirmation and celebration of the human spirit, even in somber works. Their energy is infectious, and standing ovations are not unusual at Philadanco performances.
This season marks both the 45th year of Brown’s two schools—The Philadelphia School of Dance Arts and its satellite in the West Oak Lane section of the city—and the 35th birthday for Philadanco (affectionately dubbed “Danco”), which has also spawned a junior company, snappily titled “D2.” 
Last fall three Danco women gathered in “heaven,” the Danco/PSDA third-floor apartment and private offices, to talk about their work and their mentor. Kim Bears-Bailey is assistant artistic director, and Hollie Wright and Odara Jabali-Nash are lead dancers.
Bears-Bailey grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. She was introduced to Danco as a student at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, where she is now an assistant professor in dance. After dancing with Danco for 19 years, she took on her current position.
Wright grew up in Philadelphia. At 16 she was brought to PSDA by Marion Cuyjet, legendary teacher and mentor to black Philadelphia’s dance community. (Cuyjet was Wright’s first pointe teacher and had taken Brown under her wing over four decades earlier.) Cuyjet also took her adolescent protegée to other local institutions, including the Wissahickon Dance Academy, where Wright worked with the resident Donetsk Ballet Company, a Ukrainian ensemble that relocated to Philadelphia in the 1990s. After five years as a PSDA student and member of “D2” and the past seven as a company member, Wright is contemplating a move to New York City. 
Conversely, Jabali-Nash was invited into the company after a stint in New York. Also from Washington, D.C., she began dance training as a teenager after dabbling in gymnastics. She too attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts, then went to Virginia Commonwealth University as a pre-veterinarian major. She found that once she “was no longer in the dance realm, something was missing. I went to a performance at the VCU spring concert and I realized, ‘this is what I want to do.’ ” She became a dance major and later went to New York for The Ailey School’s certificate program and spent two years in Ailey II. This is her fifth season with Danco.
Bears-Bailey calls Brown “Mom,” while she is “Aunt Joan” to Wright, and “JB” for Jabali-Nash. The names may represent different levels of intimacy, yet, all three women carry forth Brown’s legacy and represent overlapping eras of Danco’s development. Bears-Bailey is one of many in the Danco family who, after retiring from the stage, returned “to give something back.” (Others include Debora Chase Hicks and Deborah Manning St. Charles. See sidebar.) “What this experience does for the spirit and soul, it’s just amazing,” she says. “And the skills it teaches for discipline and dedication, it’s the essence of what makes people stay, what makes women who grew up here want to bring their kids here.” 
Wright says, “I came here and I was smitten! First, I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but studying with the Donetsk, I distinctly remember becoming disheartened because they kept punching at my butt [attempting to have her “tuck in”]. And then I came here and saw Kim and Hope [Boykin, currently dancing with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater] and the men, and I didn’t feel like such an outcast. And the repertory here: I get to do everything! I can move fast and jump with the men and still do turns with the women. And I get to work with choreographers like Alonzo King, Ron Brown, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Elisa Monte.”
Like Bears-Bailey before her, Wright’s presence onstage feels like marrow in the bones of the company. Whether she is leading in solo work or a driving force from within the ensemble, she dances with elegance and dramatic power. In dances like Gene Hill Sagan’s
La Valse
, she shines forth a near-tragic dignity. “I like to dig deep and think about roles that I play,” she says. “I like to touch people.”
Similarly, Bears-Bailey asserts that her task onstage was “to be a canvas, an open vessel, a sponge, so that choreographers can have their voice expressed through [me]. I felt I had to go that deep.” As a dancer she could “turn on a dime,” and her quiet but forceful presence illuminated dances as different as Ronald K. Brown’s
Gate Keepers
and Talley Beatty’s Southern Landscape.
Jabali-Nash is small, compact, and has the power and flexibility of her gymnastic background. In the trio from Alonzo King’s ballet,
Steal Away
, she travels a gamut of emotions, showing a maturity unusual in so young a dancer. “Honesty is what I depend on,” she says. “What you are as a human being is what you are as a dancer.”
Beyond their fabulous technical abilities, these artists are describing the special strength and vitality that Danco dancers possess in spades, thanks to Joan Myers Brown’s relentless artistic directing.
The Danco repertory is enough to make any dancer’s mouth water. It includes the Africanist-based choreography of Ronald K. Brown, the jazz-ballet vocabulary of Talley Beatty, and the neo-modern idiom of choreographers Gene Hill Sagan and Milton Myers. This month, May 5-8, Danco’s anniversary season presents world premieres by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Ronald K. Brown, Geoffrey Holder, and Lynne Taylor-Corbett at Philadelphia’s new Kimmel Center for the Arts, where Danco is the resident modern dance company.
It is the Danco dancer who makes the choreography shine. The 18-member company is blessed with charismatic dancers who move easily from solo to ensemble work, sometimes performing major and minor roles in four ballets in one evening. Asked about this, Jabali-Nash said, “Your body is a machine, it kicks in, and after you build up to it stamina-wise, it’s a good feeling to be able to switch from one ballet to the next.” Wright adds, “After my first year I was in four pieces almost every time we performed. Fresh out of school, I had that hunger—wanting to dance. I felt like that Gene Kelly character, ‘Gotta Dance!’  How did I do it? From watching Kim and Hope—and determination!”
Brown treats her dancers like family, often cooking company breakfast on Sunday mornings in the second-floor kitchen before rehearsals (the Danco work week runs from Wednesday through Sunday). According to Bears-Bailey, “A lot of dancers in the company come from all over, so this becomes your second family. ‘Mom’ takes on that role of caregiver, boss, aunt, granny—everything.” But “Aunt Joan” is no pushover; she’s a hard taskmaster. “She used to say, ‘I’m here to look for the wrong, so I can correct it,’ ” says Bears-Bailey. Wright adds, “Sometimes I want to get angry at Aunt Joan, but I can’t. That’s just ‘Aunt Joan,’ and I understand.”
Danco dancers understand the daily hardships that Brown still has to face, after over five decades in the dance field as performer, educator, and artistic director. As a single parent, Brown raised two daughters; as an African American woman, she is subject to the subtle and overt levels of discrimination still faced by her ethnicity and her gender. Jabali-Nash says, “She created this institution from a dream in her head. She’s here (at the school) all the time. The dedication needed to make that dream a reality—not everybody can do it.” Wright adds, “On tour she’s giving notes, wetting paper towels so we can wipe our faces, making sure the venue is clean, washing costumes in between numbers. So when she seems like the bad cop, I understand.”
Bears-Bailey, now second in command, is closest to Brown’s past and present in forging this resilient organization. “This is my 25th year here,” she says, “and every day there’s something new to learn. What never changes is how committed and dedicated Joan is to her vision. When you have that . . . .”
When you have that, you have Philadanco. Happy Anniversary, JB!

Brenda Dixon Gottschild is a senior advising editor of
DM. Her most recent book is The Black Dancing Body (Palgrave, 2003).