Philadanco Smolders Quietly On the Edges of Dance Fame

As temperatures in Manhattan reached 95 degrees late last month, Joyce Theater audiences got no respite from the heat. Air conditioning was simply no match for Philadanco, a dance company whose sizzling energy enjoys global renown.

"I've never seen them perform with such brilliance," says dance historian Joe Nash, who has followed the company for most of its 25 years. "That stage was on fire."

Founded in 1970 as the Philadelphia Dance Company, Philadanco is one of several regional dance troupes that have quietly mastered a diverse body of works by African-American choreographers. But like Ohio's Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and Denver's Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, its talents have often been eclipsed by the larger and flashier Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Make no mistake: Philadanco fuses ballet, modern, and ethnic dance as well as anyone. What sets it apart is its fluid and exhilarating performance style.

"It's not a wild energy," says Joan Myers Brown, the troupe's impeccably mannered founder and director. "We're a company of well-trained, highly skilled dancers. We also happen to be very exciting."

Her words rang true last week when Kim Bears, Warren Miller, and 15 fellow dancers performed excerpts from Talley Beatty's "Beauty Is Skin Deep, Ugly Is to the Bone." They moved to music by Earth, Wind & Fire and Quincy Jones with the grace and elegance of ballroom dancers. Duets glistened like quicksilver.

Success has not always come easily for Ms. Brown, who began her career when the race barrier was fully in place. Her first love was ballet, and she danced well enough to catch the attention of English choreographer Antony Tudor, who set her in a production of "Les Sylphides."

But as with other African-American dancers, her skin color was a liability in the world of white ballerinas. A critic reviewing "Les Sylphides" referred to her as a "fly in the buttermilk."

While the insult was still fresh, Brown turned to nightclub dancing. She spent nine years touring with entertainers Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, and Sammy Davis. The aesthetic has never left her.

"I like beautiful dancing, beautiful movement," she says. "I don't want to leave the audience wondering, 'What does that mean?' "

Yet Philadanco's repertoire is more artful than Brown lets on. Tensions simmer in a pair of dramatic works by Donald Byrd ("Bamm") and resident choreographer Milton Myers ("The Element in Which It Takes Place").

And clever appreciation of the feminine physique animates a dance by Urban Bush Women founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar ("The Walkin, Talkin, Signifying Blues Hips, Sacred Hips Lowdown Throwdown").

Led by Hope Boykin, the dancers poke fun at aerobics classes by moving their heads, hands, hips, and feet to distinct, simultaneous rhythms. It is a subtle way of paying tribute to Katherine Dunham, who pioneered this technique called isolation.

Brown enjoys a solid reputation as an administrator as well as an artistic director. The June issue of Dance magazine cited another attribute that distinguishes Philadanco from Dayton, Ailey, and the Dance Theater of Harlem: It has no deficit.

Philadanco's fiscal responsibility is all the more remarkable given that the company pays its dancers year round, instead of the customary 30-36 weeks, and offers them subsidized housing. Colleagues credit Brown, whom they often find laundering the dancers' costumes, with keeping the company in the black.

Breaking the mold has become habit-forming for Brown. She fills her board with devoted community leaders, rather than big spenders who are frugal with their time. And she takes the company to high schools and colleges as well as traditional venues like the Joyce Theater.

Lonely for peers, Brown founded the International Conference of Blacks in Dance in 1988. The annual gathering has grown to include more than 400 dance professionals from 80 companies. Enough, Brown thought, to start an International Association of Blacks in Dance, which she helped start in 1990. She now serves as its chairwoman.

As if she doesn't have enough to keep her busy, Brown runs two dance schools for Philadelphia youth. The classes, which she has offered since 1960, enroll 650 students.

Even after 25 years, Philadanco struggles for recognition. Too often dancers regard Philadanco as a stepping stone to Ailey and other companies, rather than a place to maintain a career. Indeed, 10 of its 17 dancers have been with the troupe less than three years.

And, although the company has a devoted following, many white theatergoers do not venture beyond seeing the Ailey or Harlem companies. Brown may not be the most impartial observer, but she accurately describes what people are missing.

"Philadanco has a vitality, an electricity that I don't find with other companies," she says. "It makes you want to jump up and join in."

*Philadanco tours Italy, with stops in Palermo, Syracuse, and Turin, from July 25 to Aug. 5. The company's 25th Anniversary Gala will be held Oct. 6 at the downtown Marriott Hotel in Philadelphia.

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