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Philadanco comes to the Clay Center

WANT TO GO?

Philadanco

WHERE: Clay Center

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday

TICKETS: $15, $25 and $35

INFO: 304-561-3570 or www.theclaycenter.org

Philadanco dancers will teach a workshop on Cechetti ballet techniques from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday on the Clay Center stage. It is open to intermediate and advanced level dancers for $15 per person. Space is limited. Call 304-561-3562 to register.

 CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Philadelphia Dance Company sounds like the kind of organization that might have been around since the Revolutionary War -- a nice, respectable ballet company that might have entertained the bluebloods with their powdered wigs.

But that's not how it is. The Philadelphia Dance Company, usually called Philadanco, didn't debut until 1970. The dance, too, isn't just ballet, but a contemporary blend of ballet, jazz and modern techniques with black traditions.

West Virginia will get a chance to see what Philadanco is all about Friday at the Clay Center when the group returns to the Clay Center for the first time since 2004.

Joan Myers Brown, the founder of the predominantly black repertory company, explained that Philadanco wasn't all about high-minded culture.  

The 80-year-old dance maven and Philadelphia arts scene icon said, "People want to be entertained. They don't want to look at ballet and try to figure out what the heck is going on. Dance isn't just for the intellectual college crowd that wants to think they know everything."

To that end, Brown said Philadanco mixes it up. The performance at the Clay Center, for example, will feature four different pieces, including one by dancer, choreographer and professor of hip-hop, Rennie Harris. There's also a piece called, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?" and another by choreographer Ronald K. Brown called "Gatekeepers."

The fourth one she wasn't entirely sure about, but Brown juggles a lot. Philadanco is just one of two dance companies and three dance schools she oversees. She is also a member of the dance faculty at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and sits on several boards. But she still finds time to travel with Philadanco.

"Of course, I do," she said.

Even though Brown said people want to be entertained, she also knows that some of them want to learn, and she has a lot to teach.

Brown said she started dancing later than most do.

"I was in the 11th grade," she said. "My dance teacher saw me jumping around and thought there was some talent there. She encouraged me to think about it, then encouraged me to join her ballet club, and from there, I just got the bug."

Brown danced professionally through the 1950s and 1960s and worked with Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway during segregation and the slow process of integration that followed.

She started her first dance school in 1960, but by the end of the decade, many of her students were still having trouble getting dance work.

"So I thought if I started a little group and let them dance around the community, they'd get some experience while they were looking for jobs."

She laughed. "43 years later, I'm still doing that."

Some of the dancers stay with her for decades.

"My musical director was with me starting at the age of 10," she said.

Others have become teachers at her schools.

Brown said she has a lot of family through dance, which sounds a little strange to her because she doesn't come from a dance family. Brown's mother was a researching chemical engineer. Her father was a chef.

"And my grandfather was a minister," she said. "So you know there wasn't a lot of dance going on in my family."

Her life has been about trying to put dance into the lives of whoever wants it.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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