DAY IN THE LIFE OF DANCE: Of Times Before and Ahead — Celia Ipiotis Spotlights the One and Only Danni Gee
Salmon Rushdie mused, "Before there were books, there were stories [...] The beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives."
The story I'm about to tell unfolded in Philadelphia in 1990, 10 years after Jeff Bush and I launched our weekly TV series, EYE ON DANCE (EOD).
In 1981 — a time when computers, social media platforms, and cell phones did not exist — television was the most powerful communications medium. But with few exceptions, dance was absent from the airwaves. After pitching my concept for a topical interview series on dance, a TV executive summed-up the prevailing disinterest by stating, "After you discuss sore feet and weight, what's left to talk about?"
Despite the rebuke, we created weekly, televised dialogues centering dancers' ideas, contributions and expectations. Think of it: At a time when many thought dancers should "dance" and not "speak" EOD forged a space for under-acknowledged culture bearers shaped by social, political, historical, and educational forces.
EYE ON DANCE's success secured a Pew Foundation grant to explore the Philadelphia dance community in 1990. A whirlwind week shooting Philadelphia city streets, rehearsal studios, classrooms and performances drew us to the inimitable Joan Myers Brown.
A woman with a mission, Brown founded Philadanco in 1970 and single-handedly re-shaped the dance scene in Philadelphia. However, after grooming exquisite dancers, Philadanco lost talent to the seductive Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater causing Brown to acerbically quip: "Philadanco serves as a 'farm team' for Alvin Ailey."
After the shoot, I kept re-visiting the Philadanco footage of Gene Hill Sagan's ballet Sweet Agony. An intensely mysterious woman partnered by an equally striking male dancer haunted me. Hands gripped in a fist, they pulled away from one another, circling round, magnetically joined.
Watching them reminded me of a quote by Edward Villella when he spoke on EOD, "I go to the ballet to watch a dancer's mind." And indeed, I was intrigued by what she was thinking; what was her story, where did she come from, and where was she going?
For 30 years, I never knew the answer to those questions, then, in 2021 when EOD celebrated its 40th anniversary, we presented an EOD one-hour special composed of clips from episodes airing between 1981-86.
The Dance Enthusiast hosted the debut zoom screening and in the chat box, I spotted a note: "So happy to see Antonio Carlos Scott and me dancing Sweet Agony."
I was thrilled! Finally, the captivating woman I met in the rehearsal room so many years ago materialized. In short order, I learned her name was Danni Gee and after a few days, we set-up a zoom date.
I asked Gee, a full-throated laugher, to tell me about herself. Without hesitation, Gee plunged into a deep well of experiences not only as a dancer, but as a singer, producer and finally dance curator.
Around age 7, Gee traveled to NYC with a church group to see The Wiz choreographed by the much-loved George Faison, and performed by an all-Black cast. Enthralled, Gee imagined a performance career and "knowing you moved people."
Later, Gee’s budding talent got her into the performing arts highschool in Philadelphia. Classes in ballet and modern, primarily Graham and Horton techniques, honed her skills. She seized upon the opportunity to excel in dance, and after a few years, came to the attention of Joany Myers Brown (Aunt Joan).
Back in the 1980's and 1990’s, dance was less than a reliable career choice. Dancers rarely got health insurance (to this day, few do) or a steady salary. Still, costly classes, marathon rehearsals and performances consumed dancers' days and nights.
After attending an Ailey performance, Gee knew “The House of Ailey” was her future. At first, her dream was difficult to attain. A lead dancer at Philadanco, Gee felt prepared; but even after two auditions, her goal remained out of reach.
Finally, in 1991, after Judith Jamison took the reigns, Gee got the call to come to NYC. However, for Joan Myers Brown, that opportunity equaled loss. Excited as Brown was to applaud Gee moving on, that happiness was edged in frustration.
Danni Gee and Desmond Richardson dancing for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; photo courtesy of Danni Gee
Gee admitted, regardless of her preparation, the Ailey routine was thrilling, but utterly exhausting. The apex of her career arrived when she was scheduled to dance the iconic Cry choreographed for Jamison by Ailey.
With the privilege of dancing Cry came the agony of a career-ending injury. Despite the pain wracking her body, Gee performed Cry to an enthusiastic audience. But that milestone was to be her last with the company. The date: New Year's eve 1996.
Forced endings are cruel, particularly for dancers. To this day, talking about the loss of her dance career still makes Gee well up in tears. It was her identity, her passion, and her one true love. "You have to turn yourself overnight into someone else. You've been dealt a humbling hand by life. But you can make a supreme effort to flip it, and make a magnificent and fulfilling life."
And that's exactly what Gee did touring with R&B artist Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge and later chartered her own musical career with an independent rock band, Suga Bush. While re-inventing herself, Gee was offered a job curating dance for NYC's Summerstage Festival (2006 - 2022), simultaneously running an artist-driven interview series on Youtube.
What I spotted that day in Philadelphia was an individual who dove 100% into her opportunities. That proved to be her secret weapon along with an intense desire to always create community. After successfully presenting countless dance artists at Summerstage, Gee catapulted to the position of Programming Director at the Joyce Theater.
Outgoing and uncommonly generous, Gee is admired by colleagues and loved by family and friends. We will all be watching and cheering her on!