By Merilyn Jackson
FOR THE INQUIRER
In her 80 years, Joan Myers Brown has been an artist, entrepreneur, and visionary, who with steely grace founded first, in 1960, a dance school for African American children and then, in 1970, Philadanco, where young dancers of color could find a performance home. It is now one of America’s most important companies, and one of Philadelphia’s most renowned touring exports.
The challenge of relating Brown’s life and accomplishments, of capturing her vitality, glamour and humanity, required someone her equal in beauty and wisdom. No one was better qualified than Brenda Dixon Gottschild – performer, groundbreaking author, and professor emerita of dance studies at Temple University, where she taught from 1982 until retiring in 1999.
How Dixon Gottschild came to write Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina: A Biohistory of American Performance, published last month by Palgrave Macmillan, is itself a compelling story, revealing the continuum made possible by the grit and determination of the author’s African American predecessors, including Brown and, before her, such teachers as Marion Cuyjet.
Like Brown, Dixon Gottschild has the stamina of a lioness and the heart of a mother, and navigates the murky waters of race politics with panache and originality. Her first book, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance (1996) traced Africanist movement in ballet and modern dance – “Balanchine’s Americanization of ballet if you will,” she gives as one example. After its publication, she recalled at a Philadelphia book signing last month, “I was invited to submit a proposal on my dissertation, which could not have been published when I wrote it in 1981 because no one wanted to publish anything about dance and race.”