As a young dancer in 1940s Philadelphia, Joan Myers Brown dreamed of attending one of the city’s prestigious dance academies — honing her talents, developing additional skills and learning new methods surrounded by her peers.
“When you’re a teenager, that’s when you create your dreams. And that’s what I wanted to do,” Brown recalled in a 1981 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer. “But I walked up and down Chestnut Street trying to enroll in ballet school, and was told over and over, ‘I’m sorry. We can’t take you because you’re Black.’”
Despite all obstacles, Brown persevered, making a name for herself in dance, and, in 1960, she opened a school of her own to provide opportunities for young dancers of color like herself. Ten years later, she founded The Philadelphia Dance Company, or PHILADANCO!, to continue fostering artistic exploration and to showcase the innovative works of Black dancers and choreographers. Now in its 51st season, PHILADANCO! continues to serve as a beacon of opportunity, inclusion and hope — producing critically acclaimed works for audiences all over the world.
Artistic Director Kim Bears-Bailey attended her first PHILADANCO! performance as a freshman at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. “I was blown away,” she said. “The athleticism, the technical excellence, the diversity of the programming — it just fulfilled everyone’s hunger. It was exactly why I was studying dance. I wanted to do exactly that.”
After the performance, Bears-Bailey was invited to come back and audition for the company. “Right away, you just felt welcome,” she recalled. “I joined the company on Jan. 11, 1981, and my world changed forever. I was embraced by an organization full of artists and educators whose whole lives were dedicated to making dancers become their best selves. I never had a desire to go anywhere else.”
On Feb. 17 and 18 at Asheville’s Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, the internationally renowned company will perform four diverse and critically acclaimed works: “Between the Lines,” a neoclassical ballet by choreographer Francisco Gella; “This Place,” a ballet from choreographer Ray Mercer; “With(in)verse,” a modern work by former PHILADANCO! dancer Tommy Waheed Evans; and “Conglomerate,” a modern ballet by Anthony Burrell, who has choreographed for Beyoncé, Mariah Carey and other stars.
The diversity of the company’s repertoire — showcased in the varied works of each performance — is part of the draw, Bears-Bailey explained. “You want your audience to be able to relate, to be entertained, to understand the story being told. You want to take people on a journey,” she said. “In every performance, there’s a little something for everyone.”
PHILADANCO!’s Asheville performance, originally slated for fall 2020, was one of countless shows around the world rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, when the virus first began its spread across the globe, the company was on tour in Switzerland — and just barely made it back stateside before travel bans were put into effect.
Still, Bears-Bailey remains positive about the lessons of the last two years. “It brought us closer together, and it motivated us to be stronger,” she said. “We really didn’t miss a beat. We upgraded our audio and video equipment, we learned new things, and we connected with our audiences in new ways. Dancers are resilient. They’ll always find a way.”