Generations of Inspiration
A homestead for Philly’s young dancer, Philadelphia School of Dance Arts celebrates 50 years.
By Brenda Dixon Gottschild
In a spacious second-floor studio at the West Philadelphia branch of the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts (PSDA), 27 ballerina hopefuls, aged 9 to 11 and clad in black leotards and tights, are following the lead of their tough but tender teacher. A combination drill instructor, den mother, and older sister, Karen Still Pendergrass is teaching both technique and style, emphasizing with each barre exercise the importance of “the finish.” Pendergrass has been teaching ballet at the school for the past 33 years, having begun as a student teacher while still performing with the Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco).
Both PSDA and Philadanco are the brainchild of Joan Myers Brown, who started the school in 1960 and the company in 1970. The year 2010 thus marks what is billed as the “40/50 Celebration,” and excitement is high as present members and alumni of the school and performing ensemble gear up for a year of commemorative concerts, festivals, and recitals.
Technique, style, and continuity are three hallmarks of this school and reflect the values of Joan Myers Brown, who is still its hands-on director.
One of the many inspirational signs throughout the three-story building reads, “If you think you can dance without studying ballet, it’s like thinking you can go to college without taking English.” Having studied with Antony Tudor and performed his choreography in the early 1950s, Brown originally wanted to be a ballerina. Back then, the racial climate made it nearly impossible for her and other ballet-trained African Americans to pursue careers in classical dance. Instead, she went into the entertainment industry, performing in the U.S. and Canada with top-notch shows headed by the likes of Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Pearl Bailey. For the first six years of her school Brown continued performing and choreographing at a posh Atlantic City club, commuting between New Jersey and Philadelphia every evening. Nevertheless, she regards ballet as the gold standard for her students.
“I never had the ballet career I wanted,” says Brown, “so when I stopped touring I decided to open a school to give some other young black dancer an opportunity to be that ballerina.” (Likewise, 10 years after starting PSDA, Brown founded Philadanco, originally aimed at giving her star students a performance outlet for their talents.) Rigorous training in the Tudor tradition, plus a sense of style from her years in show business, have proven to be a winning combination. The school has an average of 600 students, ages 4 to 18, in two Philadelphia locations. Brown modestly admits that, “The dancers I’ve trained personally are now my teachers. I’ve had a couple of them since they were 4 years old.” Brown’s faithful staff includes her two daughters—Dannielle and Marlisa Brown-Swint. (The latter is also PSDA’s co-director.) Other “lifers” include former Ailey dancer Deborah Manning-St. Charles.
Over the years Brown’s leadership has ensured excellence in her company and school. “The demands I make on my teachers make what we do here consistent. I know lots of neighborhood schools that are into competition,” she continues, “and I don’t subscribe to teaching tricks. A lot of it is ‘flash in the pan.’ We still emphasize technique and not just having classes to learn a routine.” According to Marlisa Brown-Swint, “Most of us learned how to teach from growing up in the school, and my mother was teaching us.” Pendergrass chimes in, “She had a standard of teaching, a level, and if you didn’t hold to that standard, she’d embarrass you right in front of your students!”
Besides ballet, the school offers classes in jazz, tap, acrobatics, modern, and hip hop. In every genre, a dose of dance history is provided along with technique. In hip hop class, “Rennie Harris comes in and teaches the history, so they’re not just jumping around doing what they see on television,” Brown comments. “Black students of dance,” she continues, “have to know so much more or be so much better to succeed. So I try to make sure that these dancers are well-versed in all aspects of dance and know the contributions that blacks have made.” This requirement is a unique feature for a neighborhood school, and assists Brown’s aim of preparing students to enter college with a well-rounded dance background. Many students stay with her from age 4 or 5 until they graduate and go to college. “When you look at the ones who leave and see what they accomplish, then you know you’ve done something right,” she says with a confident smile. Among her alumni, she counts former Ailey dancer Bernard Gaddis, former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal Andrea Long, and freelance choreographer Zane Booker.
The school’s two 50th-anniversary recitals will be held May 30 at Philly’s esteemed Academy of Music, and many PSDA graduates are expected to attend. To prepare these returnees, Brown has been holding alumni tap and jazz classes, though she laughs that she couldn’t get the alumni ballet class off the ground. “We’re talking about a mother-daughter dance,” she says, “with the mothers that were students whose kids are now here as students. It should all be a lot of fun!” Marlisa Brown-Swint adds, “My mom’s saying the show can’t be too long, but she and I are going to dance together; as well as my sister, her kids, and my kids. And we have alumni coming back from each decade—the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and so on.”
Now 78, Brown is as svelte and sharp as ever—a stunning presence (and a 2006 Dance Magazine awardee). In the foreseeable future she hopes to hand over the reins of the school to her daughters. Brown has created a strong legacy that has offered stability, constancy, and reliability to the Philadelphia dance community over five decades. She asserts, with good reason, that, “Being in business for 50 years, as a black woman, regardless of what the business is, and surviving, and maintaining, why, that’s remarkable!” And, it is all the more remarkable in the fickle field of dance.
Brenda Dixon Gottschild is writing a book on the legacy of Joan Myers Brown.
Photo of Karen Still Pendergrass, who teaches 9- to 11-year-olds at PSDA, by Sarah Keough.
Break Your Bad Habits: The Core Muscles
By Jen Peters
“Core strength” is a popular workout buzz phrase. But it doesn’t require thousands of crunches or six-pack abs. True core power comes with awareness and co-contractions of several deep, internal muscle groups: the pelvic floor, or low abdominal muscles that provide the base of core support; the transversus abdominus (TVA), or innermost abdominal muscle, which runs like a corset between ribs and pelvis; and the deep spinal extensors (lumbar multifidus), which lace up between vertebrae. For opinions on how to stabilize (without overworking) the core muscles, Dance Magazine spoke with BalletMet physical therapist Hope Davis; Sean Gallagher, founder of Performing Arts Physical Therapy and The New York Pilates Studio; and Teri Steele, Pilates instructor at Dance New Amsterdam in NYC.
Habit: Underused pelvic floor and transversus abdominus
Many dancers overlook these deep, subtle stabilizing muscles in favor of working on big-scale movers like quads and glutes—or have little awareness of them to begin with. But it’s essential to strengthen muscles that keep the body still, so that extremities can move freely.
To hone awareness of the pelvic floor and TVA, Davis has dancers lie on their backs, knees bent with feet flat on the floor in a neutral pelvis (front hip bones and pubic bone in the same plane). “We work on TVA and pelvic floor sensing and contracting, which is the foundation for a stable pelvis,” Davis says. For pelvic floor contractions, imagine one of these sensations: stopping the flow of urination; drawing the pubic bone and tailbone closer together; or the two sitz bones narrowing. Drawing the navel toward the spine while exhaling helps initiate a pelvic floor contraction and deepening of the TVA corset, while also engaging the multifidus. Maintain contractions for 5 to 10 seconds, breathing evenly. Repeat 8 times without contracting larger abdominal muscles or squeezing the glutes.
Habit: Overly constricted core
Overusing the core muscles is particularly common among ballet dancers, since so many steps in ballet require an upright spine. This habit creates “thoracic spine fixation,” a condition in which the middle spine is not mobile enough, Davis explains. The breath and diaphragm also constrict from muscular tension.
Diaphragmatic breathing exercises unlock this habit. “If the core contracts too much, how can the diaphragm move?” asks Gallagher. Start lying on your back, knees bent, and hands on top of the ribcage. Slowly deepen the breath, imagining air filling the back of the lungs and ribcage. The front of the ribs stay relaxed and quiet, while the back expands into the floor. Doing a cat/cow stretch before class also helps to mobilize the thoracic spine. Focus on creating a continuous curve and lengthened arch, so that the entire spine is moving, rather than just the lumbar.
Habit: Hypermobile lumbar spine
Students don’t always learn how to arabesque or arch safely. Instead they’re often taught to force high, long lines without proper abdominal support, at the expense of the integrity of the lower spine. This can lead to swayback (lordotic) posture and to compressed vertebral discs.
“During any back bending or arabesque, lengthen through the entire spine, while lifting through the front,” advises Gallagher. The cobra pose in yoga is one exercise that can retrain supported back extension. A willingness to “do less” is also key. Even if you practice Pilates or yoga regularly, a strong core is beneficial only if the principles apply while dancing. “It’s not enough to just learn Pilates,” says Steele. “You have to be willing to go to smaller ranges of motion when dancing, to identify what is stabilizing and what is moving.” Once you build this awareness, you can extend the leg higher or go for deeper backbends. The payback is greater depth of movement and a longer dance career.
Jen Peters is a Pilates instructor, a dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works, and a frequent contributor to