Reviving and revering the history of black ballet dancers in Philadelphia

Philadelphia dancer Delores Browne. (Image courtesy of MOBBallet.)

Many black dancers in America who worked during the era of segregation and beyond have been forgotten because they were denied a public platform to perform. Now, giving them their rightful place is at the heart of a new digital project moving forward with dollars from the Knight Foundation.

Dance is at the crux of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MOBBallet) founder Theresa Ruth Howard’s life. It’s what she does, what she teaches, and what she writes about, whether on her own website, MyBodyMyImage, or for numerous dance and arts publications. MOBBallet, her latest project, reveals the history and legacy of black ballerinas in the United States.

Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MOBBallet) is an online project that preserves this legacy: the stories of dancers who defied expectations and difficult odds to practice and present their craft.

As strong as our stories

“The stories of Blacks in ballet are integral to the history of dance,” the website explains. The mission is to use traditional archival material and oral memoirs for mini documentaries to promote discussion in the dance community at large, and bolster a network for today’s emerging black ballet dancers all over the world: “We are only as strong as our stories, [and] therefore they must…be told and preserved.”

MOBBallet was recently one of thirteen Philadelphia arts organizations to receive funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Howard will putting the $50,000 grant toward creating and curating digital art installations that celebrate pioneering black ballerinas in the Philadelphia dance scene.

“The Legacy of Black Ballerinas in Philadelphia” will be featured on the MOBBallet website, with digital presentations on a few of the most iconic black ballet dancers in Philadelphia.

“Each installation will consist of a video profile, an essay, and original archival data (photos, programs, journalism, etc.),” Howard says. “To put their struggles into the proper historical context, each installation [will] sit on a timeline consisting of significant events in both world and dance history.”

When “you can’t” is a lie

The project will feature influential dancers such as Joan Myers Brown, founder of the Philadelphia Dance Company (PHILADANCO) and the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts; Delores Browne, who in 1957 joined the first ever all-black ballet company, the New York Negro Ballet; and Judith Jamison, a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the 50th person to be inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Hall of Fame.

“Through their words we will build the profiles of their primary dance teachers, Essie Dorsey, Sydney King, and Marion Cuyjet, who worked tirelessly to train black youth in classical techniques regardless of whether or not there was a place for them to utilize their talents,” Howard says.

Having a place to dance and be recognized is at the heart of the MOBBallet project.

“It saddens me that children today don’t know their history,” Myers Brown says on the MOBBallet site. “I can say to a student, you remind me of so-and-so and they have no clue who I’m talking about and it’s a shame…. When you know your history you can walk, dance with pride, and when someone tells you ‘you can’t,’ you know that they are lying.”

MOBBallet’s projects, including an ongoing roll-call of black ballerinas and a timeline of the important dates in the history of black ballet, are available to see and interact with at mobballet.org.

At right: Philadephia dance leader Joan Myers Brown. (Image courtesy of MOBBallet)