What Inspired You To Become A Dancer?
Actually, I had no choice. My mother put me in Bernice Johnson’s Dancing School, that Ms Johnson began in the basement of her home in Jamaica, Queens. I was two at the time. Mrs. Johnson was reluctant to take me, but I guess I took to it. Mrs. Johnson subsequently opened a studio on Sutphin Blvd. I remained there until I was about 10 when my family left the country. Mrs. Johnson was very strict about being a professional. If your costume burst while on stage, you keep dancing into the wings where someone was there to pin you up and push you back out there without missing a beat. If one was not doing their absolute best in a class, or had been given the same instruction too many times, Mrs. Johnson was not above throwing at you, whatever was closest to her be it a shoe or a chair!
Today, a kid may go home after experiencing that behavior and the parents would be at the school in a heartbeat to press charges. Somehow we just understood, it was to get our attention and push us to do our utmost. No one was ever hurt. Mrs. Johnson’s aim was terrible. We all loved to perform in the recitals and often we were the entertainment at various social events. I got to wear lipstick and a pony tail! That was glamour! Everyone I knew took dancing lessons, piano lessons, was a Brownie (Girl Scout) went to Sunday School on Sundays and Bible Camp in the summer. It was just the way it was. When my father was transferred to Okinawa, he was in the Air Force, we embraced our new adventure.
The dancing classes over there, though, were so elementary. After all, I had already played Lincoln Center! I was in the Semi-Professional Class, so I got involved in other activities like ceramics and archery, not giving dance another thought. My sister Donna and I LOVED to watch the old movie musicals. I soooo wanted to be Gene Kelly! Of course I also loved Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers and Sammy Davis, Jr. It wasn’t until I had a dance unit in high school, and then satisfied a PE requirement with a modern dance class in my first year at Macalester College that the dance spirit was re-awakened. I loved to dance, but knew nothing about dance as a career. My plan from as far back as I could remember was to be a kindergarten teacher.
Who was the most influential person in your career?
First, it had to be Mrs. Bernice Johnson. We learned all styles, as well as discipline and profes-sionalism. If she felt you were getting “too big for your britches,” you’d get a long box, presumably flowers. It was actually a feather duster, back when feather dusters were actually made of peacock feathers. The note simply read, “today a peacock, tomorrow a feather duster.” She taught us the value of being on time, being prepared and hard work. After Mrs. Johnson, or BJ as we were allowed to call her when we got older, I’d have to say the most influential person was Bob Fosse. I had the good fortune to have done two Broadway shows (HELLO DOLLY and PURLIE), a variety show in Puerto Rico (with Hal Grego) and two national tours when I first auditioned for Liza with a Z, a live TV special starring Liza Minnelli and directed and choreographed by Mr. Fosse.
I had never heard of Bob Fosse. The first thing I remember is he wasn’t just a 5,6,7,8 choreographer, but treated us as actors. I loved his specificity. I learned a LOT about acting and theatre from him. He seemed to enjoy teaching me hat tricks and “skulls” and other vaudeville moves when we had breaks. What I liked about Mr. Fosse was his preparation. He didn’t come in and “ create” on the spot, but was quite methodical in what he wanted to say, the story he wanted to tell with movement. My training with Mrs. Johnson had really set me up to work with Bob. In fact, many of Mrs. Johnson’s students went on to work with Bob: Lester Wilson, Gary Chapman, Ben Vereen, Geneva Burke, Valarie Pettiford to name a few.
What was your most memorable moment in your career?
That’s so tough
because there were so many, but I would have to say getting my first Broadway show, which was a replacement in the Pearl Bailey company of HELLO DOLLY. It is the most memorable, primarily, because it was the first….first audition and first job. When my family moved back to New York, I didn’t have a clue where to “study”, so, I went back to Bernice Johnson’s. I remember asking to Mrs. Johnson if she thought I was to old to begin again. She said, "Candy, if you want to dance…..dance!” So I stayed in her school about a year. It was there I learned about Clark Center on 8th Ave in Manhattan, at the YWCA. It was a cultural center in the heart of Manhattan that offered all kinds of classes. I took classes with Thelma Hill, Pepsi Bethel and James Truitt primarily. At that time I was more interested in modern dance, so I also trained with Eleo Pomare. I was never stronger, but I realized I wanted to express more joy when I danced. (Above: Life Magazine Cover - (Tiny) John Rubenstein, Ann Reinking and Candy Brown in Pippin )
While taking classes at Mrs. Johnson’s, someone showed me a copy of Backstage and Show Business, the industry papers at the time. Still being green, I thought, “wow…they have their own secret news-papers!” In one of those papers was a notice for an audition for replace-ments for HELLO DOLLY. I had seen the show recently and literally cried when the number Put On Your Sunday Clothes filled the stage. It was breathtakingly beautiful!!
All the colors of people and costumes swirling about. I whispered to myself, “I want to do THAT!” That’s when modern dance went out the window and I discovered the jazz teachers including JoJo Smith. JOY!! So, not having a clue as to what an audition was, I decided to go to the audition not with the intention of getting the job, but of finding out what an audition was. This way when I had a little more training, I would know what to expect and be prepared to go for a job. I remember they showed us some steps. I did the best that I could. Some names were called and some ladies were dismissed. I was still there….the stage manager (I later learned) told us we would be coming back another day for another go at it. A “callback”…wow! I got a call back. My parents were as excited as I was, although we didn’t really know what that meant other than I would get another chance.
When I went back to the second audition, there was another elimination and I believe there may have been about five to seven of us left and they told us to
come in and sign contracts. I wanted to jump up and down and scream and holler, but everyone else was so COOL. I contained myself and acted cool. When I left the St. James Theatre, in the outside world, the NY Mets had just won the pennant and everyone was jumping up and down and screaming and hugging, so I got to jump up and down and scream and hug for my very own private victory. I carried that joy with me for a very long time.
What would you pass on to the next generation of dancers?
Stop with the flinging already!! Get some real technique that comes from a strong CORE. I see so many dancers just throwing themselves around not really taking the journey between the counts of 1 and 2, then between 3 and 4 etc, but just whipping through the steps to get it in and get on to the next one. Also, LEARN….about everything in life…have a variety of interests…pay attention to the world. Accept criticism graciously. Didja hear that one? Accept criticism graciously....examine it objectively and change what needs to change, keep what doesn’t.
Take classes from a variety of teachers to be able to do varying kinds of styles. Look at the DETAILS. Where are the fingers, the knees, the tilt of the head; where does the movement come from? It may not be moving the way that is comfortable for you to do that step or the way that you’re accustomed to doing it. Above all, find JOY in the WORK, not just the performance. The people on the other side of the desk want you to be good!! I would say, find the joy in the work, and your destiny will find you.
As a person of color, coming up in an age and time when parts of the country were still suffering the slings and arrows of Jim Crow, I did not carry that weight and anger with me. I have to thank my family for sheltering me from much of that. They encouraged me no matter what I wanted to do. They wanted only success and happiness for me, no matter what that looked like.
My dad, who had been a Tuskegee Airman, had told me when I was very young that I would have to be twice as good to be considered half as good. Consequently, I took pride in hard work. I probably wouldn’t be able to do that now being so boarded with “information” and with so much tension in the world. That is one of the reasons for art and artists, to find the beauty in the world. I think I would have to find a way to not bring anything into the room with me that didn’t have anything to do with the job at hand. That includes the day I’ve had…the news I’ve heard….who had treated me poorly previously...I would have to find a way to walk into that room and genuinely SHINE with my art.
The other thing I’ve learned is to not just wait for a job to come along, but to create venues for oneself, but don’t be selfish. Treat those around you as you would like to be treated….not with a shrug and an "oh well”. Keep positive like-minded people around you. I think we worked so hard for Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Fosse because they worked so hard for us…and we all loved the common purpose. Dancers are such magical beings! I keep that in my heart. Dance like no one is watching.
What inspired you to be a dancer?
Probably, necessity!! As a gawky, stoop-shouldered, sway-backed, bow-legged, accident-prone 11 yr old “tom boy,” our family doctor recommended I take dance classes. They did their best and enrolled me in a neighborhood dance studio where I took a 1 hr class that was 30 minutes tap and 30 minutes ballet. Even that I loved!! What did I know?? My mom was a “Jitterbug Queen” in the Navy and taught my sister and I how to lindy & jitterbug – we had a great swing band collection at home. Then we taught her The Twist! We also watched The Ed Sullivan Show, and we particularly loved The Hamilton Trio. It never occurred to me I could ever dance like that.
My parents could only afford one year of classes, but during that time the school was sold to Charles Julian from out east who was relocating to St. Paul, MN, to be a cantor at our local synagogue. He was a “Song & Dance Man” who apparently worked professionally. He ended up hiring me to work at his school from age 12 – 16 at the reception desk; partnering him with ballroom classes; and assisting in teaching “kiddie classes” in exchange for classes. In many ways, pretty sweet – it soon became my life out of school.
Along with 2 other girls, he worked us for hours every day in all styles of jazz, tap, stretching our bodies relentlessly and some ballet. We also worked on singing. Because of him, I aced my first audition for the St. Paul Civic Opera Company and was cast as a dancer in Wonderful Town when I was 16. Through this experience it became crystal clear that I would pursue musical theatre. I was a sophomore in high school and felt so fortunate that I knew without a doubt what I wanted to do with my life. Over the next 5 yrs (even after moving to NY), I did 10 musicals and 2 operas with St. Paul Civic!
As they “imported” choreographers, some dancers and principals from NY, I worked with consummate professionals at an early age. This is where I met, continued to work with and made lifelong friendships with Larry Fuller, Alan Johnson, Mitzi Hamilton, Mary Jane Houdina and my dearly missed treasure, Tony Stevens. Unbelievably, all in St. Paul, MN!!!!!
The Original CHICAGO Cell Block Tango Ladies:: Michon Peacock, Candy Brown, Graciela Daniele, Chita Rivera , Cheryl Clark and Pam Sousa
Who was the most influential person in your career?
Besides the aforementioned Charles Julian and Producing Director, Glenn Jordan, of the St. Paul Civic Opera Co., every teacher I had in NY was influential from my dearest friends: Michael Shawn and Tony Stevens to: Claude Thompson, Jaime Rogers, Lynn Simonson, Frank Wagner, the Butleroffs (who helped me solidify my ballet technique – or lack thereof); Bill Esper (acting); and Keith Davis (voice). Of course, Directors and Director/Choreographers such as Martin Charnin, Michael Bennett, Grover Dale and Bob Fosse made a tremendous impact on me - forever making me challenge my imposed limitations. I have unending gratitude for each and every one of them.
What was your most memorable moment in your career?
Don’t we all have so many?? It’s part of what makes being an artist such a fulfilling life – especially when each of us has worked so hard to be a working Professional!! Here are a few:
First, with Tony Stevens, doing the groundwork that constituted the inception of A Chorus Line – it was the right time for dancers to be acknowledged and appreciated!!! The fact that it continues to provide quality employment for young and seasoned dancers alike is an added bonus. Especially meaningful for me was bringing my dear Nicholas Dante into the talk sessions. Because of his gift as a writer, Michael wasted no time securing him to create characters from the tape sessions. For his work on ACL, he was awarded The Pulitzer Prize as well as the 1976 Tony Award and many other accolades. He fulfilled his long sought after dream to be recognized as a writer!!!
Second, during this same time, being cast in Chicago – my first (and only) Fosse show. And to have the opportunity as Chita’s understudy to go on as Velma opposite Gwen Verdon and Jerry Orbach!! What amazingly generous people they all were!!!!
And third, performing in Martin Charnin’s Upstairs at O’Neal’s when I was 6 months (& more) pregnant with my daughter, Alexis. It was such a joy filled experience!!! “We” performed through Xmas Eve, 1982, and she was born 4am New Years Day, 1983.
What would you like to pass on to the next generation of dancers?
From 1999 thru Aug, 2012, I was the Conservatory Director for CAP21’s Musical Theatre Training Programs. It was a dream job for me as I loved working with our faculty and students. They taught me so much!! I feel strongly about our responsibility as artists to support and encourage the next generation. They have many choices for training. However, most of them need stronger life skills. They need help understanding the importance of appreciation, courage, creating and nurturing relationships, work ethic, always doing your personal best, being a ‘team player’ and still uncover your own uniqueness, resilience, a never-ending passion for the work and always keep training and learning from everyone.
1980, Michon Peacock in Al Jolson, Tonight!
What became a significant “turning point” in your life or career?
In 1971, after having worked in the theatre for 9 years, I was soul searching in many ways. I wondered if I should be doing something more with my life – be more engaged in the world and in society. Was I leading a totally self-centered life? During that year my friend, Mary Ann Bruning, introduced me to the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin. As I chanted and practiced, and even made some efforts toward going to college, I kept returning to my heartfelt love of the work and proceeded to have more and more wonderful theatre experiences. I’m very happy that I continued as the next 15, 16 years were amazing. Funny though, after my daughter was born, I slowly but surely “fell out of love” with performing. I became more interested in creating a stable, secure life and having more quality time with her. Timing is everything, and that was the right time to shift my direction. No regrets – a new journey began.