Joan Myers Brown fell in love with classical ballet at age 15. But as a black female dancer growing up in segregated Philadelphia, she couldn't find a training school that would accept her.
Instead of pursuing ballet, she became a nightclub dancer, often performing and touring with legends like Sammy Davis Jr. and Cab Calloway. Though she enjoyed that experience, she said she always felt it was bittersweet.
"I was forced into that work with top stars. After several years of that, I thought I might come back home and teach in my community and offer some young black girl the opportunity that I wasn't afforded," said Brown, 85, who went on to found the Philadelphia Dance Company, or Philadanco.
Her company is bringing two shows to South Florida this month, at the Duncan Theatre in Lake Worth on Jan. 13 and 14.
Philadanco will present four original modern performances, including "A Movement for Five," choreographed by Dawn Marie Bazemore and inspired by the real-life case of the "Central Park Five," the five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping a woman in Central Park in New York City in 1989. Their sentences were reversed about 14 years later, after another man confessed to the crime and had DNA evidence linked to him.
"By that time, they were no longer boys. They had lost their youth. They were grown men," she said. "Fortunately for us, we got to meet the guys. They came to the opening night at the ballet."
Brown originally started a ballet school in 1960. She opened the dance company a decade later, fusing ballet with jazz, hip-hop and modern dance. Though classical ballet is her passion, she chose to make Philadanco a modern dance company because the Dance Theatre of Harlem had just opened as a racially diverse classical company the previous year.
"I knew that there wouldn't be two black ballet companies, so I shifted from thinking of ballet to modern dance," she said. "But all of our training is ballet-based."
Her dancers often move on to dance in bigger companies, like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
"Currently, I have five former Philadanco members in the Ailey company," she said.
Her efforts to help black dancers didn't stop with her school and company. In 1991, she started the International Association of Blacks in Dance, and currently serves as its honorary chairwoman.
President Barack Obama recognized Brown's achievements in 2012, awarding her with the National Medal of the Arts. Two of Brown's three daughters accompanied her to the White House ceremony. But even then, Brown couldn't stop thinking of work.
"I received the medal and left because I had to catch a plane to Chile and join the company, so I didn't get to go to the party," she recalled. "I think my kids enjoyed it more than I did, because I was like, 'I gotta get on this plane.'"
Brown never got to perform classical ballet onstage as she had dreamed as a child, but she feels a sense of accomplishment when she watches her dancers perform in a theater.
"Standing in the back of the theater with people standing on their feet, giving a standing ovation and clapping, that's when I'm proud. The rest of it is icing on the cake," she said. "I'm proud of the dancers and of what they do. The opportunities I'm able to make available for them make me proud."
Philadanco will perform at 8 p.m. Jan. 13-14 at the Duncan Theatre, 4200 S Congress Ave., Lake Worth. Admission is $39. Call 561-868-3309 or go to PalmBeachState.edu/theatre/duncan-theatre.