Brenda Dixon Gottschild (LTA '09) featured in Philadelphia Inquirer
A giant of dance, Joan Myers Brown, has a biographer to match.
by Merilyn Jackson
February 12, 2012
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."
That became 1999's Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. "Cultural studies were hot then and my dissertation was the first real study of dance looking at race," she said. "So unlike most doctoral people, my dissertation had to be my second book - after I had somehow proven myself with the first."
Out of Waltzing, she said, came 2003's The Black Dancing Body, a Geography From Coon to Cool. "St. Martin's Press asked me to write a history of black dance and offered a very nice advance. I don't know where I got this from, but I said, 'I don't believe in that kind of thing because so much is going to be left out. But maybe I could just write a geography of the black dancing body.' "
And so "the idea of blending the concepts of history and geography, history of body movement, about African American hair, skin color, feet, buttocks, became the book and those became the chapter headings."
The Black Dancing Body received the 2004 de la Torre Bueno Prize from the Society of Dance History Scholars and is used by university dance departments nationwide. It's a thrilling read for anyone interested in how African American memes thread through American history and culture. She also coauthored a textbook, The History of Dance in Art and Education, now in its third printing.
Dixon Gottschild was born in 1943 in Williamsburg, Va. Her family moved to Harlem when she was 3, and she entered City College of New York at 16.
"I loved it," she said. "We could walk to campus and wear Bermuda shorts. I started dance in high school at 15, like Joan, also with a gym teacher. But it was modern dance and it was integrated."
Even before graduating in 1963, she was working with Philadelphia-born Donya Feuer and Paul Sanasardo in New York. (It was in this era that the great Pina Bausch was dancing there, though Dixon Gottschild doesn't recall her.) She went on to Mary Anthony Dance Theatre and, "by accident," to Joseph Chaiken's Open Theatre later in the 1960s.
"Chaiken was moving away from talk theater to more movement-oriented work. I was there teaching yoga and they asked if I wanted to stay for the workshops." She toured with them for three years and performed in Chaiken's seminal work The Serpent. "In '68 we were in Milan performing when Robert Kennedy was assassinated and they were trying to get less political and I was getting more political, so at some point we parted ways."
Dixon Gottschild, who received her doctorate from New York University in 1981, has a daughter, singer Amel Larrieux, from her first marriage, and two granddaughters. She began commuting to teach at Temple in 1982 and moved permanently a few years later. In 1989, she married dancer/choreographer Hellmut Gottschild, a founder of Temple's dance department and founding director of ZeroMoving Dance Company, dissolved in 1992.
Dixon Gottschild journeyed from a career as artist-performer to one as writer-scholar. But in between writing and lecturing around the country, she began performing again with Gottschild in the '90s. They toured one of their works, Tongue Smell Color, from 2004 to 2008, when Gottschild, pushing 70, decided he didn't want to do it anymore. "But I could've gone on forever," she said.
At the age of 69, this is her final book, she says, commenting on the five-year process that began in 2007. As early as 1985, she had begun to interview the leading lights of Philadelphia's African American dance community, "and when I heard there would be, for the first time, money for research, Hellmut, dear Hellmut, reminded me about those interviews. So I had boxes of material already, and I felt that it was my responsibility to do it."
They became the base for grant proposals and finally the book. In all, she raised $75,000 between the Leeway Foundation and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through Dance Advance, allowing her to pay research assistants Laura Henrich and Sacha Adorno over the three years it took to write the book, as well as an office manager, former Philadanco staffer Vanessa Thomas, and Penn State photography professor Lonnie Graham for the cover photos and montage.
For her title, Dixon Gottschild riffed on Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope, placing Joan Myers Brown in the company of other historically significant figures.
She writes in her prologue, "The phrase rings true for who our protagonist is and what she represents. Although unique to her time and place, [her] cultural ecology is a slice of American history that shares common ground with other African American stories.
"Nevertheless," Dixon Gottschild continues, with typically generous sweep, "it is also a prototype for Americans of other ethnicities - an object lesson in survival, resolve, persistence, and reconciliation, particularly for those who have come through, in spite of social, racial, and economic constraints."
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