'Audacious' Black Ballerinas Had To Be On Point

Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina
Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina

A Biohistory of American Performance

by Brenda Dixon Gottschild

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Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina
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A Biohistory of American Performance
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Brenda Dixon Gottschild

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For more than four decades, the Philadelphia Dance Company, PHILADANCO, has opened its doors to dancers of all races. Ballerina Joan Myers Brown founded the dance studio, in spite of decades of personal struggle against deeply ingrained and often unquestioned racial barriers in the ballet world.

Brown, who is African-American, tried to take classes in the 1950s at white ballet studios in Philadelphia. But "the doors were closed to her," says Brenda Dixon Gottschild, author of Joan Myers Brown and the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina.

Gottschild tells NPR's Michel Martin that there were some integrated dance classes in Philadelphia, taught by British choreographer Antony Tudor. He worked with Brown and eventually cast her in Le Sylphides, a classical ballet. But, Gottschild says, one local newspaper reviewed the ballet and referred to Brown and another black ballerina as "the flies in the buttermilk."

Brown went on to perform in nightclubs around the country with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Cab Calloway. In 1960, she returned to Philadelphia, and eventually opened PHILADANCO. "Her community allowed her the strength to go on," Gottschild says. "She, indeed, had to deal with a city that didn't open the doors the way one would have assumed, even in the 1960s."

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