Interview with Paulette Poole-Phillips
Local Dance History Project
Philadelphia Dance Projects
Interview with Paulette Poole-Phillips by Terry Fox, October 26, 2016.
At Philadanco Studio, 9 North Preston Street, Phial PA 19104
PAULETTE POOLE PHILLIPS: I am Paulette Poole-Phillips.
TERRY FOX: Today is December 11th, 2016. I’m Terry Fox, and I’m interviewing Paulette Poole. And we’re going to start talking about you. Tell me where you were born, and who your parents were.
PP: Actually, I was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, at Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne. My father was in the military. My mother was at that time a waitress in her sister’s restaurant, and they fed the soldiers. My parents met there, and the rest is history. My mother moved here prior to my birth, and she went to the nursing school. And I was born, and I have sisters and a brother, here are four of us, three girls and one boy.
TF: Here is Philadelphia?
PP: Here is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
TF: Then what did your dad do?
PP: My dad, after the military, he worked in construction.
TF: Can you tell us a little bit about your first exposure to dance?
PP: So I took dance, it must have been second grade, because I came here in third or fourth grade. So I was in Cinderella, and I was a mouse. I had my first tutu. So I came here with dance in my heart. I continued to bug my mother to search, and search, and search for a dance school. But, I did not go. We were financially unable. I didn’t know of Marion Cuyjet on 58th Street because I lived in southwest Philadelphia. So I could have gone there perhaps, but I didn’t know about her. Things were a little different, so I didn’t get to dance more until I met Faye Snow. My next experience with dance is at the end of elementary school, beginning of junior high, in 6th grade. Faye taught at the school.
TF: What school was that?
PP: You know what? When did she start? I was hanging around older girls, who had her as a teacher at West Philadelphia High where she taught the cheerleaders. So, from the cheerleaders she moved to dance, and we had a dance club, and we were all in a dance club. So that was at West Philadelphia High. And that was where her desire for dance became more because of the students. She wanted to learn more from us, which is what she said. She then went back to school to get her masters in Dance and Fine Arts.
So she went to George Washington University. A lot of the dances that were choreographed on us, she used on her dissertation, or her doctorate. Four Women was one, to Nina Simone’s famous song. I even believe maybe Black Angels, too, which was one of the staples of the dance company she created for Juba Contemporary Dance Theatre. Actually—I thought that I was an original member, but actually I came the year after, because I was pregnant in 1969, and I believe that Juba actually started in ’69. So I was a part of the dance club. The company started. I had a baby; after that I came back to dance, and I started with her in her company.
TF: And, how long were you involved with the company at that time?
PP: I was involved with the company for years. Not until—let me see. I also went to Temple.
TF: So, give a timeline again. It’s like ’70 already?
PP: Yes, ’70, ’69–’70.
PP: Then I went to Temple University. I probably still worked with them up until the late ’70s. The company continued, but I did not. I did not continue with the dance company. I moved on, but I never left. You know, dance was still part of my background, and I just, being older, most of the dancers, where she moved on to Franklin Learning Center, from West Philadelphia. So, she was teaching. I’m 64, so a lot of the performing arts things that are in place now did not exist in the early ’70s.
You couldn’t think about dance as much as a career, because there was no income. So, for me, and I had a daughter, so I had to work. I often worked not in the dance field, but I tried to find something that I knew the job would allow me to dance. So for me, I did the medical secretary thing, and I worked in a hospital because it’s 24/7, so you can work night shift and dance in the day, or something like that, and you can travel.
I went every summer to New York. We all traveled to New York to dance with Faye and George Faison, and audition for Alvin Ailey. I received the scholarship for the Alvin Ailey in ’76. So, for ’77, ’78, ’79, I commuted every day to New York. But my desire, my love of dance and my desire to dance all came from Faye Snow. And then Faye company and many other companies, especially in those years, meshed with each other. It was Faye Snow with Juba, and Philadanco. Some of the male dancers might have moved back and forth through the companies. George, Gary DeLoatch, Michael Harrison, many of the young men danced both places, because the men were in short supply. And from us getting better and better, and what she saw in the youth at that time, Faye wanted to go back to school. So she went back to school to George Washington [University]. She received her degree in Fine Arts, and her Master’s in Dance, and her doctorate. She has a doctorate.[West Chester University] She’s Dr. Snow, actually. She merged her dancers with Joan Kerr, and that’s how Joan Kerr came in. So we older girls, or women went with Joan Kerr; myself, Debbie Redd, Angela Moreno, those dancers were involved with Juba as well as with Joan Kerr.
TF: So, what do you mean, merged?
PP: Well, the companies actually shared dancers, so we danced with Joan Kerr. Dances that were originally choreographed on you, you went and helped the new people learn, the new dancers to learn those dances. Like, Faye’s staple [repertory], which was Black Angels, was choreographed on me, so I helped anybody that she wanted to learn it, because then you didn’t have videos or notations of dance.
TF: Well, that’s a tradition anyway, the visual and oral passing of the choreographic information.
PP: That’s what we did, which was really good. Joan Kerr’s daughter Lisa danced with us. Remember her? It was really great. At that time the company had a CETA grant. One of the first times that you got paid for dance.
TF: Oh, so you were in the CETA company in ’76-‘77?
PP: Yeah, but you know what, it’s such a thin line. After ’76, what we did was perform at Jewish nursing homes. I worked at the Veterans Administration. At a quarter to ten I had a break. I would go and put on full makeup. You know the Joan Kerr makeup?
PP: At ten o’clock I did that, and then at twelve I was off work and they would pick me up. Every day, we had a schedule of different nursing homes where we performed. We did that for a year or two.
TF: At least two years, I see.
PP: Yes that was my life. In the summer I auditioned for Alvin Ailey, and was accepted to study, and I commuted every day. Then Angela Moreno and I went to a Graham Intensive workshop but we didn’t have a scholarship. We paid for that. My mother was living in New York at the time, so we stayed at my mother’s apartment and took the train every day to Martha Graham’s studios. The studios that we went to, I believe for Graham and I’m sure for Alvin Ailey—are not located where they are today.
TF: Did you study with Jimmy Truitte at the Clark Center at all?
PP: One other thing about merging and people sharing; Philadanco has always been open to let older dancers, or the people that are, I don’t want to say floundering around, but ones who don’t have a real home, but still want to dance, and want to learn from the best teachers. I’ve always been able to come to Philadanco in summers and take the program. So, I studied with Jimmy Truitte here. I took [classes from] different people. Also, Katherine Dunham. I’ve always been allowed to come in and take those classes for the summer intensive program, which was very helpful to you, if you didn’t have a real home for yourself, that you could keep your body and your mind still doing dance and learning new choreography. Or, not necessarily choreography, but just to keep the technique.
TF: Let’s go back again. When do you think that transition when you were both dancing, like, around ’79, or ’80?
TF: Well, the CETA would have been around ’76 or ’77.
PP: Yes, because it was, ’76 was when I auditioned for Ailey, and I got that scholarship. So, after that we did the Graham thing, and then that was pretty much the end. And then of course when Joan passed away.
PP: Her studios were at 13th & Race Streets.
TF: At the end, yes, Race Street. When I worked with her, it was on South 3rd Street. That was in ’66. Then she moved around up to Chestnut, and then over to Race.
PP: That was before me, But you’re asking me years. Do I remember? I’m like, oh, my goodness, because I’m not a good person with remembering years and stuff. But then, now I think back, because I do everything with my daughter, so. My daughter was an infant in ’69. Because she is 47, so we’re talking about things 50 years ago.
TF: I know. It has been a while. But, it’s important to remember these early Horton companies.
PP: Oh, most definitely.
TF: Talk a little bit about the Horton Technique, in terms of how it created a genre, or these two companies.
PP: The Horton Technique, we gravitated to it. We loved it, and so it’s the knees, the hinges, the flatbacks, and all the things that you now see people in modern dance doing. It’s very difficult. It was, I don’t want to say gymnastic, but it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t lyrical, you know. But if you studied and practiced, and repetitive classes made you better in the technique. The technique is used worldwide now, even though people don’t know that that’s what they’re doing all the time. They might not say Horton Technique, but that is exactly what they’re doing.
. So, there’s a vocabulary that goes along with it that most people don’t know. Anybody that’s teaching, they don’t use it. So then we say, if you see somebody that’s doing something they don’t know what it is, we say they bastardize. But here are the people that really were into it, like Joan, and Faye, and some of the others—Joyce Trisler—they were really pure. It was pure Horton. It was not like you could take license to add other things to it. That is choreography. When you do that to a technique, I don’t like that.
TF: I agree with you.
PP: Same with ballet. Russian styles are recognizable. You can recognize when different things are added to change the technique. You really can’t change the technique. You can embellish on it in choreography, you make up a dance, but not changing the technique.
TF: What were the differences between, or were there differences between, the choreography, the works of Joan Kerr and Faye Snow? Would you say it was, content, or meaning, or style? I mean, if they were using the same technique. Horton Technique, basically, would characterize the quality, I guess, of the work.
PP: Well, I would say just about anyone, your choreography is going to take on a life of your life. There’s your background. So Joan Kerr was Jewish, so a lot of her stuff was about the Jewish community, or Jewish life. We wore the babushka in one piece. Whereas, Faye Snow is African American, so her life is different, so, she referenced slavery, or other things, issues and concerns. Just like today people when people are referring to Black Lives Matter. It’s a consciousness, like Alvin Ailey with the church. You use what your background is for your choreography, I think. So, that was the difference. But the technique, if I saw both things or anything, if I see a flatback, or a hinge, or a lateral, it’s still a flatback, a hinge, or a lateral.
TF: Talk a little bit about the Black Angels piece that you were in. What was that about, and what did it mean for you to be in that?
PP: Well, the longer I live, the more it means to me. In the beginning, I had no idea, and then to hear Faye talk about it when she did. So, originally it was to music by Roberta Flack; it’s in Spanish. So, and all I really knew is Black Angels. So, what she’s singing about, was the first time she saw a black angel somewhere, in church. But the black angel to Faye Snow was Marion Cuyjet. I forget. I’d have to look back, but she picked the three women that meant a lot in her life.
TF: Did she study with Iona Nash ?
PP: It wasn’t Iona. No, because that was African, and that was Arthur Hall, but that was something that we did. But, it was, the people that she studied with, influenced her and inspired her.
PP: And then, it’s a difficult dance. There’s a lot of leg work; there’s relevés, and of course there are “angels”[a Horton position from the study Deep Floor Vocabulary ]. I think it’s a pretty pure Horton Technique choreography.
TF: The angel, just as explanation, is where you’re on the floor, and you bring the one leg up behind you, resting on the knee, you twist your torso bringing your arm back as a wing.
PP: The work is still relevant today. It’s something that you can do. It was changed a couple of times. I think originally we did it with three [as a trio].
TF: That’s my memory.
PP: It’s been done as a trio; it’s been done by five [as a quintet]. It’s been revived twice. I did it at The Painted Bride for the over-40 concert.
I was 40 years old when I performed it a second time, and the first time I was, what? Twenty. Maybe 22. And it was a dance that we always did. It was always in the repertoire. And male dancers have performed it. Because it was me, Angela, and Debbie, and then I believe it was me, Paul Perry, Michael Hayes. That was the five, the two men and we three. But it’s emotional to think about. We had things happen. We did it in smoke. The first time, when you do these props, you do these things, life is different than it was 20 or 40 years ago. So, 40 years ago, when you used the smoke machine with the black ice, you froze. It was cold! It was very cold, and you didn’t realize it. You don’t rehearse with the prop. So then the first time you did that, then, dancers would want to be warm.
Also you have to do all of these relevés in it, I mean long, long relevés. So, that was something that was different. Then once, something kind of humorous, once when we did it the curtain caught on fire. There was a circle that you run in the dance. And we were running the circle, and Debbie Redd is pecking at the fire on the curtain! That was really something that was funny.
TF: Was that at The Bride, too?
PP: I can’t remember that.
TF: I don’t remember that.
PP: I don’t think that, no, because The Bride would have been a little more careful about props being close to a curtain.
It was the light got so hot. It probably was at a high school. I cannot remember where it was, but I just remember that happening. We talk and laugh about that, with the fire. But it was a very touching dance. And now that Faye Snow is not doing as well with her health as she did in the past—also, we’ve lost Ms. Marion, Marion Cuyjet. When we the over-40 concert, Mrs. Cuyjet had already transitioned. So it’s a beautiful piece, and I’m glad to be a part of it. Or sometimes older dancers that don’t know me at all, or they might see me and say, “You know, you have a name. You’re one of the Angels. Oh, you’re the Black Angel! I saw you.” Because, there’s a
Then another time when I did it, I was pregnant. So, that’s another thing which I tell my daughter, that they call you the fifth Angel, because I was pregnant when I did it. When you’re pregnant and you’re still working in the dance, and all of the sudden, your stomach stays out. You try to keep your stomach down for the longest, longest time. It just seems like as soon as we performed that, after that it was like, oh no! I was able to get into that costume for that time, but that was it, so… We all have fond, very fond memories of that.
TF: I remember that work. Because, I had invited dance artists to The Bride every year, and Juba was a staple company that I always had come in.
PP: That’s the one where Gary DeLoatch and Michael [Hayes] danced, He Ain’t Heavy, He’s my Brother. That was, if Juba danced, you knew those works were going to be on the program.
TF: That’s right. Their signature pieces
So, can you remember any one of the works of Joan Kerr that you were in, besides the babushka one?
PP: I can remember the work of Joan that we did. There’s a poster that I wish I had, a poster and I’m screaming. And Paul was in it. It was Paul [surname ?], me, Debby Abrams, Debby Redd, and Angela Moreno, and it was a great suite, because it was something that went from contracting, closed in like a ball to more open dancey movements. The beginning of it was the scream. There was song that went with it, I even remember when I did it at the Harold Prince, and well, you’re so close, I interacted with the audience during this dance. [Dime a Dance]
TF: Was this mid-1980?
Because I performed in a concert that also had that work.
PP: It was an elaborate piece, and that was one of the first times we danced to words, not to song, or not music, and you had to memorize the poem. That was something that was a little abstract for me initially. And I’m like, I have to memorize this. Because when you’re used to doing something a particular way, and you move into to something different, it changes. But that’s what the music was for the piece. It was a poem; it was words, so you had to know these words. So, that was difficult for me, to move to that.
Some of her first work I enjoyed. Joan was so strict, and she was very rigid about the Horton Technique, even down to the makeup. You wore the specific makeup that he did in the ’50s.
That’s what she wanted; that’s what you did. When I was dancing I felt like you were an instrument of the choreographer, so you tried to do what, exactly what the choreographers asked for. I never felt like, even though you are doing that, I was bringing so much of myself. You know what I mean? I felt like I was trying to be the person for what they wanted me to be, and I didn’t always feel like it. Which, today, I think you see more people—there’s something more of themselves that’s required, or that is expected.
TF: A good point.
PP: Years ago in dance, I didn’t feel that. But you always are bringing something of yourself, no matter what, but it’s an ensemble, or supposed to be a certain space, a certain time. Being friends with your dance mate was important, more important.
Because if I know you and I trust you in a friendship, then I trust you to be on the stage dancing, especially with lifts, with a guy, and just trusting you to be there on the one. Whereas, I don’t how much that is now. Because it’s then like a job, I don’t know if people interact. Especially with Juba, we lived all together, practically. You did everything; you did a lot together. Your life, your dance life, was your life and the choreographer.
Faye was your mom. To this day she had no children of her own, so the dancers were her children. We looked out for each other. You made sure everybody got home from the concert and different things. When you interact, even as I’m training dancers now, I try to teach that a little bit. With children, you make activities for them to be together, so that when they are performing together they can trust a person and interact with you.
You know what I mean? Because I think the house, the company, or whatever, even if it’s not big, it’s not Philadanco. I’m sure people come up through company one, company two, to the main companies. You want to interact with people and be friends. You want to be friends with them so that it makes for a better performance.
TF: Right, more spirit from the artists.
TF: We already talked to you a little bit about the technique and style, and the repertory. How about, what was the scene like in Philly? What were the other artists and groups around, or maybe even further afield, in the ’70’s and on?
PP: For me it was Philadanco was new, coming up. Everybody was new then; people are doing their 40th and 50th anniversary now.
So then everybody was a baby. Okay, and that was mostly, and especially African American. Now, Joan Kerr allowed us the opportunity to dance in a group that was integrated. So you really didn’t think about it the way it is today, because again, and modern was a more integrated technique. Whereas, if I had been a ballerina it would have been a different story, because it was definitely segregated. But in the modern and jazz, there was more diversity and it wasn’t a segregated society, whereas ballet was, and is, still is. But for Afro-Americans it was mostly Philadanco and Juba, and Arthur Hall. So, each company kind of had their own technique that went with it. Because, Arthur Hall’s company was African, period.
TF: Well, he started as a modern dancer.
But then he moved into his traditional style.
PP: Yeah, it was all African, and we worked with them. Actually, I performed the first time at the Academy of Music with Faye Snow, Evangeline, I don’t remember her last name, and Van Williams, in the first Aida, the first black opera. So we were in the first black opera because they asked Arthur Hall, I guess, for dancers. Whereas, today’s world, I was in the movie the Beloved. The choreographer Diane McIntyre, I’m sure, is familiar with Ms. Brown, so there was an audition at Philadanco. I went to audition for Beloved, and I’m in the movie with the dancers in Beloved, which was nice. That was, all I really remember is Philadanco, Juba, and—
TF: Ile Ife ?
PP: Yes. And also, Alicia Craig. [Philadelphia Civic Ballet ]
TF: And Joan Kerr.
PP: And Joan Kerr. And it was a friendly competition. It was a friendly competition.
TF: I think Joan Kerr was established by the time Philadanco came into being.
PP: Yes, yes. Oh, most definitely.
TF: Any other memorable people, dancers, music, musicians, collaborators, costumes? We talked about the stage, of the curtain going on fire.
PP: Well, Joan, she had her costumes and her things that she chose for you. She was very rigid. For years, the same thing, just like the makeup. In some works we wore clothes, street clothes with the babushkas, and then we wore heels and little sassy skirts. With Faye, she engaged Michael, one of the dancers, Michael Hayes to design costumes. I’m trying to think before Michael who did costumes. But with Black Angels it was a set thing she wanted, the look they wanted to have for the angel. So it was always in black. You had the Rose of Sharon. That meant something. It had a Rose of Sharon, that was on your black leotard. And then the skirt wasn’t tulle; it was like a sheer, see-through chiffon. That was the skirt, and it was long. When dancers might wear street clothes the work night be trying to tell a story of social consciousness and things that are going on in the world so they look like everyday people. But since you’re a dancer, so the designer would take a nurse’s uniform and make it split up the side, so you could move freely. You might have a hat on. You’re never to touch a costume. If you lose a part of your costume on stage, you just leave it there. It’s not in the choreography to pick it up, so.
And it was fun finding costumes. In a small company, you were the one that always did the dance, so it might even be your own stuff. So now people have their dancers and they have their costume, and it stays with that company or whatever, house. It’s not going home with you. Those kind of things evolved since then. But then it may have been my own dress that I used.
TF: Well, maybe it was the economic factor.
PP: Right. You couldn’t afford costumes.
But, I remember dress rehearsals. I remember with Joan especially, she did her dress rehearsals and photography. That was when the pictures were taken, and say you made a mistake and you didn’t shave properly or something that day, and you had to pay for the photo to get airbrushed. But, Joan, I loved her. She was very nice. It was sad the way we lost her, as well.
TF: I think both of those companies did work, like you said, of social conscience. I mean, they did fun pieces too, and they also were very interested in narrative, in terms of telling a story. And Faye, of course, did the pop music or songs.
Joan was probably more classical, or more modern classical, contemporary.
PP: For both, most of the time a work didn’t consist of just one dance. It was a suite. There may be four or five different pieces that put together to make one specific thing, so you had four or five different costume changes, maybe even makeup change. At that time you might be in every single dance. So you had to change fast. There often weren’t separate dressing rooms so everybody used the same room. It might have been a closet for all six of us, or ten of us, actually.
TF: Where were the venues that you performed ?
You were at the Academy of Music for Aida, and you were at The Bride. Where else were you?
PP: Schools, recreation centers, nursing homes, the Harold Prince. That was a big deal to be in a real theatre with a real lighting. Because many times you might have—well, a lot of us, via Faye, were graduated from West Philly, so you might go back to West Philly to do something for school, so auditoriums, like that. Also, when schools began to promote dance and things got better, like at the Franklin Learning Center. But mainly it wasThe Painted Bride, and when it was on South Street.
TF: Did you perform at Plays and Players at all?
Because Joan performed there quite a bit, and at the Gershman Y once or twice.
PP: I remember doing the Y, and the Harold Prince. We did the Harold Prince a lot and The Bride on South Street.
TF: Which was a storefront.
PP: Yes, it was just a storefront, and it had a balcony so that the person who took the pictures or the video could be there. But it’s just like for such a short period of time, but it was 100 years, we had no technology. There wasn’t even photos of everything. Even now of looking back, when we’re trying to find pictures, there are not that many pictures of everything.
TF: I think that’s economics, too. I’ll be curious some of those photos that you do have.
PP: The photo that I am going to send you, the one that I have found, is one of a photo shoot in the cemetery with Faye. I have that.
TF: Who were your audiences then?
PP: It was the high schools. The high schools and families. We did Temple a little bit. Once different people graduated and moved on with their careers or someplace, they always called you back to do different, to do other things. So, it was that.
TF: I think when I was at The Bride, Juba always had a full house, always a good audience. And Joan, too, always had good audiences, so there seemed to be a following of people, following those particular companies. Maybe they crossed over because of the dancers, but also I think they reached a wide range.
TF: I don’t know; that’s just my impression.
PP: Yes, and then we did the colleges. We did Bloomsburg College, and a lot of the things were annual, so you always went back to them every year. So there was a Lutheran school, I can remember specifically, and I’ve run into people over your life, as long as you keep living, you run into people that go to that college that remember that. Now, at Bloomsburg we used to go up there very year to a big conference that they did. We would drive up. They fed you, they paid you, and you performed. And then we would go home.
I remember going to SUNY, up to New York and doing that same thing. They did all the promotion for it. It was a paid gig, but when I say paid, you got paid for that day, so it may be, I doubt if I ever got much. I’m going to be generous. I know I got $100, but I don’t ever think I got $200. So, I might have got paid $150, $180.
And that was great. You thought, oh, you made a lot, but how many days could you really live on that? That’s for one show, so that might have been what you got for that entire month. And, what did you put into it? So, there was no payment for rehearsal time. You got paid only when you performed.
TF: The economics were dreadful. They’re still dreadful.
PP: That was left up to Faye, or Joan, to make the decision. I assume a principal maybe sometimes got more than me.
If I did a solo maybe, I don’t know. If the person paid us a thousand dollars, I’m pretty sure they probably divided it ten ways. Because then, what does she get? Does she get paid? No, probably not, probably more often not. And then there were transportation costs many times. Especially for me, I didn’t drive. I can’t think of anybody of us that drove, maybe Debbie Abrams with Joan Kerr.
TF: Joan had a car.
PP: They would rent a van, so that was money.
TF: There were expenses to production, for sure.
TF: Anyone carrying on their legacy? You teach, so you must be carrying it on in some way.
PP: Yes, I like to think I am. I teach Horton, and then we moved back. So, when Mrs. Cuyjet died, we, Philadanco, Faye Snow, and some others got together from her service and thought that we wanted to keep a legacy going of her. So, we made the Marion Cuyjet Scholarship Fund committee, which consists of Joan Kerr, Delores Brown, Faye Snow, myself, Michael Hayes, some relatives of Mrs. Cuyjet, her daughter Judy, and a few other people.
We got together and we decided to produce a show, and we produced that show at The Painted Bride. We try to do something every year. It’s been very, very difficult, because most of these people, Joan Brown, have there own company and tons of things going on. So I kind of became the person, the nuts and bolts person to pull everybody together, to have meetings, to produce this. We did it a couple of times.
What we did with the funds was try to give it away. We gave it to a student that we would find that was continuing the legacy of Mary Cuyjet. But we thought how are can we keep doing that? How are we going to find somebody that’s carrying on that legacy, when that person’s died ten, whatever, years ago? Are the criteria fair? As time went on we lost some people. People got older; people passed away. So it still exists, but the work hasn’t been done with that particular one.
Personally, myself, I always try to teach dance in some way. I went on a spell where I was just doing it at my church, because I didn’t really have time, because I have a family, and a husband, and a job, a stressful job, so it was difficult. But, I need dance exercise for my life. I need it in my life. So, I work with Joan [Myers Brown] or whoever I can, when I’m available. People will call and need me for something. Right now I also have daughters that I wanted to get involved, and for different reasons, one’s now with a company that’s connected to Joan and Faye Snow’s students who have opened their own school and studio, and a performing arts center. They have drama and dance.
TF: Where is that?
PP: It’s in southwest Philadelphia, 56th and Chester. It’s Leaders and Legends, and really it’s Christian based, and so it’s my particular lifestyle, and that’s what we chose for my granddaughter, too. And she is excelling unbelievable!
PP: Of course, I’m the grandmother, but.
PP: I like what the director does. Instead of doing the recital, she picks a theme and they do a play. They did Cinderella. This time it’s Lion King. So when they did Cinderella, my granddaughter’s eight, they have her as the fairy godmother – no, she’s the mean one, the wicked stepmom. But the two children, her two daughters, were grown women. So, it made for a good play. They sing, and they dance. It was at The Painted Bride. She has also used Performance Garage. In February she celebrates Black History, and then she does her end-of-year recital. So I teach Horton there. I do praise dance at my church. Where else was I? I taught for sixteen years for the Department of Recreation. Now that I’m older, You know, my mindset to deal with a child, is what I have, and praise is what I do, which may not always work in the hood. So, I tried and tried. I tried to stay as long as I could. I stayed there for fifteen years.
TF: What recreation center was that?
PP: Christie, at 58th and Christian, where Ione Nash was. So, they have a history of dance and reaching out to the community.
TF: That’s nice.
PP: It wasn’t about the community, but it started, just things in the world. Like, there was a shooting there, and different things. So, once the people that I had been familiar with all those years retired, and the new people that came in, weren’t able to keep a handle with the community as the other people had. I didn’t feel danger for myself, but I certainly wouldn’t want to have a child hurt that was coming to a class, or in a class, or something. Even with a car, parked car, or chasing the police, and they bounced off cars. Add to that, I not only taught dance there, I taught aerobics there for the women. And even for Philadanco, I taught aerobics here for the moms while the kids are in class.
TF: That’s a good idea.
PP: So I did that for a couple of years. But, working nights, and doing that, and coming to Philly when I live in Delaware County, it just became too much.
PP: I have to scale down, but I didn’t want to be out of the mix, so I found a place and I am retiring from my job, and then I’m going to be able to do even more. So, that’s what I’m doing to continue. It’s difficult, because you have to remember that kids, they’re not used to being taught like that. They think it’s like a gym class or something. One little girl even asked me something like, “Is this what we’re going to do all of the time?” It was like, this is a dance class? I was like, “Yes, this is what you’re going to be doing.” But, the more they do it, they come along. But it’s very different now.
TF: They have to go see a performance, in my experience.
If I take them to see Philadanco, then they can go back to the studio or a class and say, “Okay, this is where this is going to.” But they didn’t get that right from just doing the exercises.
This is so great talking to you. Thank you.
PP: I’m so glad you called me. I wish I could remember some more.
TF: I’m going to try to piece together the stories of these two artists, and of course, all of you in the mix with it.
PP: Yes, because I do know that, like I said, Faye, she went back to school because she saw potential in us, and she felt like she had exhausted what she had to give us. At the same time, that’s when she and Joan Kerr became friends, and then we went there. So, she was our teacher, and we were students with her, in many ways, because she discovered Horton with us. Then Faye went and did her dissertation. So, when she found Joan Kerr, who was doing the Horton technique, we love it, love it, love it. I mean, when I’m teaching Horton at some places, I went for interviews over the years and I remember going to for an interview to teach dance and, I don’t know, I got chastised, they didn’t think that that was black enough. But you have no clue! You didn’t even know. And who’s black or was blacker than Alvin Ailey?
TF: It’s so interesting.
PP: Especially now. At that time Alvin Ailey was already in existence and he’s doing Horton Technique. So what I try to say to them, well, you know, I’m pretty black. So, when I’m going to be teaching people….
TF: There’s this racial piece that goes all through this, both in the culture, the community, and then in the work itself and which companies are integrated, and so on.
PP: And I never felt none of this when I was in it.
TF: It’s interesting, because I had teachers who taught all kinds of dance experience, and I met Joan through Kathy Pira. Do you remember her at Temple ? Kathy taught all kinds of techniques. She just mixed up the pot. But I never responded to Graham Technique at all, but I loved the Horton Technique. I had no idea that it was at that point carried on by Ailey. And so, it was interesting that it seemed for me, and I don’t want to debase it by saying neutral, because I just felt like it was so strong. It was so strong, and so lively, there was no sort of fake stuff on top of it. It was just full-out, and difficult, like you say. I mean, that’s just my impression, so I’m curious…
PP: But you know what? I think you’re right. I didn’t feel like I was—
I don’t feel like I, looking back when we were in it, I didn’t feel like I was in a racial something, at all.
TF: No, but it comes through the interviews. There was a draw of all these people around this technique. That’s very interesting. Anyway, I don’t know what it means or anything, but I went through that.
PP: And it made me a great body, because the person that I was before I studied, the body is not the same as after _ of course at my age, but it’s not. I have great legs. I did not have that. My legs were so skinny. And then, with all techniques, when you’re dancing there’s things that you have naturally that work with it. I lifted right up, because a certain thing with the second position, and then you didn’t have to be, I didn’t have to be this tall. Your body can hone the things that you have naturally, can go even further.
TF: People of all sizes can do it. I mean, when Judith Jamison walked into Joan Kerr Studio, I was overwhelmed, because I just thought all dancers were short, and of course, I’m tall. So, when she walked in I was like, “Yes, a tall person! This is so great. I can keep going.”
What question would you like to address, or answer? What have I not touched on? personalities, the persons in the community, the repertory, anything?
PP: I don’t know, maybe more on the economic, you mentioned it. Things worked out the way they did because of the economics. There was no funding. There was no Pew Charitable [Trust] Grant. There was no, no nothing. People just did it. They would use their own money. People did stuff for, gratuitous. People did it for free. I did not pay Joan Kerr when I came there every day to take class.
I didn’t pay Joan Myers Brown. Then depending on where you lived, how you got in, how you knew people. I knew of Philadanco. I was at West Philly High, and that’s where Faye Snow was. So, that was accessible to me. So, you went to what was accessible to you. Or now, like some people perhaps maybe—she’s a lot older than me, so I guess she wouldn’t mind my saying it—like Debbie Manning. If your mother was into dance, or into getting you somewhere, then she searched out stuff for you and found that, which I think her mother was like that.
TF: Some people have more resources, for sure.
PP: But, I didn’t have that. My mother, my parents didn’t even see me dance for years. My father had never seen me perform. She was a nurse at a nursing home. I danced, with Faye Snow we did a thing at St. Agnes, and my father, somehow I got my father to come to that. And he was in awe. He was really surprised. It was pleasant, because he never knew what I was doing. I can tell you, I’m sure there’s some other people, especially in my age group, from years ago, their parents may not have even seen them dance. You spent all of this time. I mean, me and Michael Harrison walked from 60th and Irving to 46th and Haverford to take Faye Snow’s class. And I don’t remember paying for that, either. You had these recreation departments that had classes like those I taught at Christie. Those children never paid for those; they couldn’t pay for that class. And, oh, that’s what I forgot—Brandywine Street. Brandywine Street was great, because of Eakin’s Workshop. And that was the beginning of funds with the CETA, and funds becoming more available to inner-city, or people, period, for the arts. So Eakin’s Workshop had dance, had drama, had music, and maybe some other, sewing.
PP: Photography, and fashion with Bill Norwood, who has gone on to glory. All of these people have transitioned now. German Wilson, who was fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. Faye, John Hines, Delores Brown’s mother was the secretary there. And that was nothing that was paid, either. When it first started it would try to get the kids just to come. And then, the premise was eventually you were going to pay. But when the time came to pay, those same people either didn’t come, didn’t have the money to pay, or didn’t pay, and some of those programs kind of dried up, because, they had hopes of people being able to start to pay for it.
TF: These programs have to be subsidized. I did the same thing. I took classes at a recreation center in Baltimore as a child.
PP: So, and now is that available? How available is that? The Department of Recreation in Philadelphia still does some, and I’ve heard in some other cities that they do. But it’s still difficult for someone to think of that as a career, or even just have a desire to do it. Where can I go to do it?
TF: Just for fun and exposure, and to go see other concerts and everything, it’s hard. Yes. A few high schools, there are some high schools that have dance programs. Well, this is good. Thank you very much.
It’s important to remember the people like yourself, who were dancing.
PP: Certainly, the people that taught us, because we’re on their shoulders, for sure. If it wasn’t for all of those people. I’m just glad I had an opportunity to see them, to meet them. It’s good.
TF: It’s a life.
[End of Interview]