For 50 years, Joan Myers Brown led Philadanco, the company she founded to give Black ballet dancers performing opportunities that she had not been afforded, despite her talent.
But she has long said she would take her final bow when the company hit the half-century mark, in 2020. So Philadanco developed a succession plan — several succession plans over the years, which never quite worked out.
It turns out the right candidate was there all the time. Late last month, Philadanco announced that Kim Bears-Bailey, 58, its longtime assistant artistic director, would replace 88-year-old Brown as artistic director, with Brown retaining her title as founder.
Brown confirmed this week that the reorganization moves Bears-Bailey to Philadanco’s top rung and that she will become head of the organization — eventually.
For now, the buck still stops with Brown as Bears-Bailey gets her footing. “I’m number 1, Kim is 1B,” she said. “I’ll be 90 next year. [She turns 89 this Christmas.] This organization needs to be in place to operate without me.”
The coronavirus pandemic disrupted Philadanco’s 50th anniversary performances in the spring. But it also allowed time to plan.
“It gave me an opportunity to think,” Brown said. “And also, it gave me an opportunity to talk with Kim about, ‘Are you ready to do this?’ ”
It also helped that the company was given a $420,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, meant to help with the succession plan and generate renewed confidence among other funders and donors. (Some potential funders have been troubled by the large debt the company owes to Brown, who has lent the company hundreds of thousands of dollars of her own money. The company’s tax return for the fiscal year that ended June 2019 lists a $907,000 balance on a loan from Brown.)
“So finally, the board of directors have come up with debt-reduction plan number 47," Brown said, "and hope that it can work.”
They also still have their shoestring fund-raising program, Danco Dollar Day — this year scheduled for Nov. 21 — when they encourage members of the community to give the company a dollar, figuring the small, affordable amounts will add up.
The company no longer has an executive director but plans to hire one down the road. “We have no work and no earned income. We are working as a team right now trying to shore up [the health of the company],” Brown said. For now, the financials and fund-raising are outsourced.
Brown’s daughter, Marlisa Brown Swint, has become the director of operations and touring. (Her other daughter, Dannielle Brown, teaches at the affiliated Philadelphia School of Dance Arts, where Bears-Bailey’s 16-year-old daughter is a serious dance student.)
Mellon Foundation program officer Susan Feder expressed confidence in Bears-Bailey, saying her leadership “augers well for the company’s future.”
Feder also noted that “most of the five founding companies of the International Association of Blacks in Dance have brought the children of their founders into leadership positions. Like family businesses, these next-generation leaders are deeply invested” in the companies' success going forward.
Prepped “to step up the ladder”
Bears-Bailey has been part of the Philadanco team for nearly 40 of the company’s 50 years. She was a dancer for 20 years, starting in 1981, and was asked to take on the dual role as Brown’s assistant artistic director in 1989. “I’ve never had a desire to go anywhere else,” Bears-Bailey said.
Brown would tell her, " ‘Don’t feel like you have to stay here. Go out and get your feet wet somewhere else,’ " Bears-Bailey said. "I didn’t need to do that. Everything that I imagined, that I desired, that I wanted to be a part of … I got it all here.”
Taking on the artistic directorship doesn’t seem imposing, Bears-Bailey said, because she’s been shadowing Brown for so long.
“I [was] continually being groomed and shaped to be able to take on that responsibility," Bears-Bailey said. "And so it seems normal. It doesn’t seem like a huge job because she’s allowed me to be in that place, to have those relationships, to have that connection to be able to step up the ladder.”
Nor will Brown be handing her the keys and taking off. She is still going to the studio every day.
“I can’t walk out and check the door right now,” said Brown , whom President Barack Obama called a “national treasure” when he awarded her a 2012 National Medal of Arts. "It’s gonna take a minute. We say we’re in phase two” of her plan to step away.
“But she was actually, in all honesty and in front of her face, she was doing 80 percent of my work,” Brown said of Bears-Bailey.
“Because I was taught well,” replied Bears-Bailey, who interchangeably calls her mentor Mom or Aunt Joan.
Brown jokes that she likes not “having to bring someone and open the door and say, well, the pencils go here.” But she also didn’t want to hire someone above Bears-Bailey, who has long proven herself, knows the company inside and out, and is comfortable with Philadanco’s founder.
“When I hire people, I always say, ‘Everything you heard about me is true,’ ” Brown said. “ ‘And some of it is not nice.’ But [Bears-Bailey] lets it roll off her back, she doesn’t take it personally, she knows it’s all about what we’re trying to accomplish.
“I kind of felt that we were twins,” Brown said.
Bears-Bailey said she plans to keep the company on the same track. She doesn’t yet have to hire any choreographers or plan future seasons because the company, like most, plans things out several years ahead.
They also have a stock of ballets commissioned for the 50th anniversary celebration that didn’t make it onstage last spring and will perform those when the company can dance again.
Bears-Bailey is hoping to bring the company’s dancers back on salary in December to prepare for shows likely to be danced in 2021. The pandemic has reduced the company size from 16 to 12 dancers, and she’d eventually like to be back at full staff.
Meanwhile, Philadanco will be featured Nov. 9-15 on the American Dance Guild’s 2020 free virtual Performance Festival. Two of the company’s dancers, Janine Beckles and Joe Gonzalez, also recently performed in the Annenberg Center’s Fall Digital Season.
Cards from “Aunt Joan”
Bears-Bailey first came to Philadelphia to study dance at the University of the Arts, where she is still a professor, and was unexpectedly hired as a Philadanco dancer her freshman year.
She won a Bessie Award in 1992, appeared in the movie Beloved, has taught all over the world, and has been a repetiteur for many choreographers, reconstructing their works for companies to perform.
Her four decades at the company were interrupted only once — for her senior year in college. “It was a promise to my mom that I would [study] and do that well, being the first college student in my family at that point,” she said. "It became a little challenging, and I didn’t want to not give my 100 percent to both institutions.
“Aunt Joan just wrote me a card every week during that time I was gone. And she still does.”