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Blondell Reynolds Brown: The Dancer in City Hall.

September 5, 2011

Text and interview by Cary Carr. Image by G.W. Miller III.

Democrat. Educator. Advocate for youth and women. Councilwoman at large Blondell Reynolds Brown is known as a forceful politician who isn’t afraid to take a stand for minorities in Philadelphia. But the Penn State graduate also identifies as a life-long dancer, former member of PHILADANCO and an enthusiastic fan of jazz music. That’s why her responsibility to support Philadelphia’s arts and culture fits perfectly into her life in the world of politics.

So while the city faces an uphill battle to protect the arts against a diminishing budget, Brown uses her passion for song and dance to keep the music playing as she maps out her next public policy victory. Whether it’s mastering difficult choreography or convincing council members to see her vision, Brown is determined, hopeful and unrelenting.

How did you get involved in the dance world?

At age 16, I was able to get a job. I took my pay from Genos (the defunct fast food chain, not the cheesesteak shop) and I started to pay for my own dance lessons. I went to Penn State and I was invited to audition for the Penn State dance company.

I came back home to Philadelphia, learned about the Philadelphia Dance Company, was invited to audition and it changed my life forever. I got a chance to dance professionally, which was unusual for a 21, 22, or 23-year old because, you know, dancers really need to start very early if they want to fully develop the body so they can execute complicated movement. So I got a chance to live my dream at PHILADANCO as one of their members for many years.

What was your favorite genre of dance?

Jazz. I love jazz music. I love the jazz form, and I love the often times asymmetrical aspects of jazz music.

Who are some of your favorite jazz artists?

George Benson. Joe Sample. Some might call that old school. I love Billie Holiday. Love Billie Holiday. I actually have a black and white photo in my home that I bought forty years ago of Billie Holiday.

How did you transition from dance to politics?

I had a career. I’m a teacher by training, both undergrad and graduate. Dance was by avocation. I got a chance to live it professionally. I got interested, or my curiosity about politics sparked, when I watched the Democratic National Convention on TV in 1980. President Jimmy Carter was running. I watched the convention and I was just struck by this fabric of people from around the country who were there to figure out how to nominate the next president of the United States

Fast forward. At one point in my career I was in this job that really broke my spirits, so I decided to leave the job. I called Chaka Fattah (now a U.S. Congressman) and said, ‘You know, I think I’m going to do law school. I’m out of work. I’ll probably go back to the classroom.’ He had an opening in his staff at that time. He was then a state senator. He said, ‘I have a legislative aid position open on my staff. Are you interested? It requires commuting to Harrisburg.’ I was unemployed. I was going to go back to the classroom. It was something new, and it was the first time I was going to be paid for working with an elected official. So I took it. And that experience changed my life forever.

When I came to City Council, President Anna Verna knew of my strong interest in the arts. She knew my background and profile. So she asked if I would chair City Council’s committee on the arts, parks and recreation. I said yes. It was wonderful because I lived my life as a dancer. I love all forms of art and now was going to be on the public policy side of helping to advocate and champion and pass legislation around the arts.

What do you think are the similarities and the differences between dance and politics?

Some may say politics is a dance. You can visualize things – movement, forms, montages in your head, and then you have to figure out how you translate that to the average citizen. You can listen to music and everybody can hear the same type of music or everyone can look at the same piece of art, and you get as many interpretations of that art piece as there are people looking at it. Politics is one where we all have our point of view, we all have our perspective. The challenge is in getting, in my case, nine council members to agree that a particular course of action is the way we should we go.

What do you think government can do to help support the arts?

Philadelphia’s number two industry in town is tourism. It has that distinguished factor because of the more than 250 arts and culture institutions that we have in this city. Our arts and culture feed the tourism industry. Our city recognizes that. Our mayor recognizes that. Meryl Levitz (the CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation) does a brilliant job of that, and they include the arts in their promoting and marketing of the city every chance that they get.

Can we do more? Always we can do more. But when you have so many competing strains on your budget as mayor and as council-members, we have to make the oftentimes very delicate but tough decisions and find the balancing act where we adequately or aptly fund our arts while we take care of all these other demanding ties to the city’s budget.

With schools having their art programs cut because of the budget,how do you think they can manage to keep the arts alive and keep children interested?

When we’re faced with the kind of times we have now, where more and more schools have to use their budgets to focus on reading, writing and arithmetic, it’s an opportunity for your larger, cultural institutions to play a bigger part in partnering with neighborhood schools to ensure that some form of arts and culture continues.

I would challenge every large – and large is relative – arts and cultural institution in our city to partner with, link with, wrap their arms around a local elementary, middle or high school and make their presence known in those schools around the city. We’re going to have to be innovative in learning, how we do more with less, and higher-ed institutions have a duty – and a responsibility, quite frankly – to help us with this huge endeavor. I believe some of our higher-ed institutions get it. And some don’t.

Do you think that dance can empower women?

It gives us a sense of discipline, a sense that we can soar, that we can accomplish anything. When you’re in a dance studio, and you have to execute a movement 1,500 times to get it perfect, really, that’s life. You’re going to be faced with challenges where you have to do it over until you get it right.

Does music inspire you when it comes to your work in politics?

No doubt. There is nothing that makes my soul happier than listening to good music. I work out with music. I brush my teeth with music.

I have some other aspirations I want to get done before the Lord takes me away from here, and I know that when I move to that next place, music will be a part of that experience that will move me to take care of this next goal that I have.

What’s your favorite music to dance around to?

I have everything Michael Jackson, Barry White, Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross. I have all of their music. Because Michael Jackson was such a superior dancer who was in many ways was from another planet in terms of his level of creativity, he probably would be the one I would turn on.

Do you still take dance classes?

I don’t get a chance to take classes. I go to concerts as often as I can. I love old-school, so I hang out with girlfriends at old-school nights. There’s an old-school (party) on Sunday nights hosted by Butterball and Patty Jackson, so I do that once in a while. I go there non-descript. I just show up and dance my twinkle-toes off.

What is your biggest hope for the arts and culture in Philadelphia in the future?

I am now doing the research for Philadelphia’s own children’s art and music festival. A lot of other cities do it. Our city does not. I am investigating that now as we speak. I am going to pull together a proposal and submit it to the mayor because I would like to see us raise money to have an annual children’s music and arts festival. That’s what I’d like to see.

What do you think is more exciting, dance or politics?

I love my work. I really do. To have a chance to be an advocate and a champion for another part of my life that made me very happy has been in some ways a blessing. I never put that all together until right now.

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