Karen Brown. Courtesy Karen Brown
Karen Brown. Courtesy Karen Brown

Dancer broke barriers, blazed trail in illustrious career

Years before Misty Copeland made headlines in 2015 for becoming the first Black woman to be named a principal ballerina in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Theatre, Karen Brown was forging a path for other ballerinas of color to follow.

“I’ve held every position – apprentice, soloist, principal, artistic director when there were few females, executive director, union rep.  I know this industry from every single aspect,” said Brown, 68, who grew up in Augusta and graduated from Aquinas High School.

Currently, an associate professor of dance at the University of Missouri at Kansas City Conservatory, Brown started ballet training under Ron Colton at what was then the Augusta Civic Ballet in the 1960s.

She’s been in Augusta for the past few weeks preparing for and conducting a camp for children in the Sand Hills area. The first session ended June 7, and the second session will be from June 10-14.

Karen Brown at Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo by Leslie E. Spatt. Courtesy Karen Brown

Brown took ballet with Colton for about eight or 10 years. It was a bold move for Colton to teach Black children at his Augusta studio in the 1960s, and Brown knows that he lost students because of it.

During her high school years, she and a few fellow ballet pupils spent six to eight weeks for several summers in New York taking classes with the Joffrey Ballet.  

Colton encouraged her to seek out his friend and colleague, Arthur Mitchell, the founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, when she was studying in New York.

Colton, who died in 2016, was a former dancer with the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine, and Mitchell, who died in 2018, was the New York City Ballet’s first African American dancer, joining the company in 1955.

 But, Brown said, Mitchell was always on tour when she was in New York.

 As Brown had spent her summers at Joffrey, she naturally thought she’d follow a similar path of that of her friends who went into an apprenticeship track there; however, Colton knew about the prejudices in the ballet world against Black dancers and helped Brown find another path to do what she loved as a career.

 At the time, Colton’s ballet company was part of the Southeastern Regional Ballet Association, and the dancers took part in a SERBA event in Richmond, Va. Unbeknownst to Brown, Karel Shook, cofounder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem was there watching her in rehearsals and performances.

That visit resulted in a scholarship to the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s summer program.

 “After four weeks, they asked me to be in the company,” she said. “When they said they were going to buy my pointe shoes, I said ‘where do I sign?”

She knew the expense associated with purchasing the shoes, and she loved to dance. Plus, they were heading to Mexico to perform only a few weeks later. Brown knew she wanted to travel.

But her parents weren’t too sure. Her father, Dr. Allen Brown, was a physician, and her mother, Ann Brown, had a registered nursing degree. Both of them graduated from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. They valued higher education and encouraged it in their children. They didn’t personally know any professional dancers. Could she support herself via dance?

Karen Brown in “Paquita” at Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo courtesy Karen Brown

“Ron and my dad were friends. Ron said ‘she can go to college with a broken leg, but she can’t dance with a broken leg. These contracts are few and far between. It’s an extraordinary opportunity. This contract will not be available in four years,’” she said.

Brown would spend the next 22 years with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. From 1973 to 1995, she traveled the globe dancing and getting an education that her parents later told her they couldn’t have provided.

Athens, Paris, Hong Kong, Sydney, El Salvador, Canada, Brazil.

In each place they performed, she’d take the few hours before her theater call time to explore. She’d learn bits of the native language as she took public transportation and saw the locales up-close and personal.

Toward the end of her time with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, she was sidelined for several months with an injury, and she realized that her life in New York was integrally associated with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

She knew the next phase of her career would require a move. It didn’t matter what city that would mean.

From New York, she spent some time with the Atlanta Ballet and then became the artistic director of the Oakland Ballet – an empowering move for Brown.

“There, I’m on the other side. I’m in control. I get to decide what to do, who’s going to do it, when we’re going to do it, and how much we’re going to spend on it,” she said.

She was there for six years. She also was the bridge executive Director for Garth Fagan Dance in 2016–2017 and an assistant professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia from 2007 to 2013.

Recently, she received permission to perform a piece created by Geoffrey Holder, the Trinidadian American actor, dancer and musician, who played a wide variety of roles in his career from Baron Samedi in the 1973 James Bond film “Live and Let Die,” to Punjab in the 1982 film version of “Annie” to the narrator in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in 2005.

She first met Holder when she was at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and he came to set a work called “Banda” there. He knew exactly who he wanted in the piece.

 “He pointed through the crowd and said ‘you’re the one,'” she said.

The announcement shocked Brown because he passed over dancers who’d been part of the company longer than she had.

Holder’s “The Creation” is the work that she received permission to produce. For decades. Holder’s widow, Carmen de Lavallade, was the only one to dance its lead. Now 93, de Lavallade has only recently stopped performing.

That longevity in dance inspires Brown who said de Lavallade is like a second mother to her. Brown said she desires to emulate de Lavallade and Cicely Tyson, who also performed into her 90s.

“Why would I stop doing something I love?” she said.

Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News and Inspiring: Women of Augusta, has covered Augusta’s news for more than 35 years. Reach her at charmain@augustagoodnews.com. Sign up for the newsletter here.

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