Her new, acclaimed book celebrates black dance pioneer
by Lou Mancinelli
Inequity. Segregation. The determined will of young blacks to take on classical art forms despite cultural barriers and social aggression tinted with racism in Philadelphia, New York and beyond for centuries.
This is the tale told through the life of Joan Meyers Brown, the iconic founder of the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts and PHILADANCO, Philadelphia’s historic dance school and performance company, in a new book by Chestnut Hill resident Brenda Dixon Gottschild Brown was born in 1931.
Gottschild, professor emerita of dance studies at Temple University, said last week that her new book, “Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina—A Biohistory of American Performance” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), is the story of a black ballerina taking on a white form. The book has been earning rave reviews, including one in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Jan. 15.
According to Jennifer Dunning, former dance critic of The New York Times, “Brenda Dixon Gottschild brings a bracing mix of scholarship and unsentimental compassion to bear on the story of Joan Myers Brown, a classy, feisty, eminently pragmatic visionary whose life and dance company occupy a vivid and important place in the largely unexamined history of dance in Philadelphia, an early and important center for the art as well as Myers Brown’s home.”
By tracing the history of Brown’s life, from her interactions with early teachers to her life as a young dancer unable to take classes at white schools in Philadelphia, to an integral member of both the Philadelphia and nationwide dance communities, Gottschild presents a historical narrative of 20th-century dance through the story of one inspired woman.
In 1984, Gottschild moved to Philadelphia after securing tenure at Temple. She met Brown, who introduced her to numerous important figures in the local dance scene. “Sure enough,” said Gottschild. “I find out there’s this whole black culture I had no idea about.”
By 1985, Gottschild had compiled lots of material about Brown and the story of dance. Her manuscript for a book on the subject was rejected at the time by Temple U. Press.
Since then, she has co-authored a textbook and published three other books, “The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), “Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) and “Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts” (Greenwood, 1996).
Her work on Brown sat for more than two decades before a few years ago, when she “somehow returned to the material.”
Born in Harlem, Gottschild, 69, lived in the East Village in New York City during the 1960s. A few years earlier, when she was in high school, while in the south protesters marched for civil rights or conducted sit-ins at stores like Woolworth’s, Gottschild participated in sit-ins in New York, carried out in collaboration with the protests in the south. “I was as much a hippie as I was a civil rights protester,” she said.
An honors student, Gottschild skipped eighth grade before attending the same high school in New York as did Colin Powell and Alan Greenspan. In 1963, at 20, she graduated from the City College of New York (now CUNY) with a degree in contemporary culture, a major she created herself. Her course load included a concentration in romance languages and 20th-century studies like art, classical music and the philosophy of ethics.
Her introduction to dance came a few years earlier, when in high-school she was offered the chance to take dance classes instead of gym. Her teacher had been an extra for the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York. Gottschild was hooked.
By 1961, she was studying with Donya Feuer and Paul Sanasardo in Chelsea. Her professional theater career began in 1964, when she started to study, teach and perform with the Mary Anthony Dance Theater, also in Manhattan.
Gottschild then spent time abroad in Helsinki, Stockholm and London as an independent choreographer, performer and educator. That’s when, in the late ‘60s, she was introduced to the Open Theater, an avant-garde theater group in London with social overtones in its work. She started as a teacher and stayed on to do a number of workshops as her interests in theater developed.
Socio-politically charged work is a recurring theme in Gottschild’s writings, and the story of dance from segregation through the modern era is a socio-politically charged narrative. In 1981, she earned her Ph.D. from the performance studies department at New York University. She started to teach at Temple U. in 1982 and commuted between the Big Apple and the City of Brotherly Love before moving to Philadelphia two years later.
Gottschild said her mission is to bring the African American quotient in American culture to the forefront. Her quest is “to have this quotient acknowledged, celebrated and honored by the mainstream white culture and the black culture. That mission is important because mainstream culture has appropriated many aspects of black culture in dance and beyond.”
Gottschild’s career is studded with awards, such as the 2001 Congress in Research and Dance Award for Outstanding Scholarly Dance Publication, for “Waltzing in the Dark,” among others. Last year, she received a production grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through Dance Advance to finish her work on Brown.
She still performs with choreographer and husband, Hellmut Gottschild. The two coined “movement theater discourse,” a term that refers to a theatrical piece that involves dance movement, poetry, reading and more. Her daughter, Amel Larrieux, is a soul and R&B singer and keyboardist.
In January, Gottschild hosted an event in recognition of “Joan Meyers Brown and the Audacious Hope,” at the Church of St. Martin in the Fields. During the last week is January she was interviewed in her home for WHYY-TV’s Friday Arts program, which should air in May. The following day that same week, she was interviewed on 90.1 WRTI-FM for the Tavis Smiley Show, a conversation that aired through Feb. 3 nationwide. She will read locally, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2 p.m., at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy (215-844-1870 or www..bigbluemarblebooks.com).
“Blacks have every right to do ballet and play Beethoven, as white folks do to play James Brown and boogie down,” said Gottschild.
For more information about Brenda Dixon Gottschild, visit bdixongottschild.com. “Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina—A Biohistory of American Performance,” is available online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and elsewhere.