Cherry Hill first grader receives surprise visit at Black History Month contest reception

After creating a poster on Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown for the contest, Juliya Robertson got a chance to meet Myers Brown during Wednesday’s reception at the Cherry Hill Public Library.

First grade student Juliya Robertson talks with Philadanco founder and long-time dance instructor Joan Myers Brown at last Wednesday’s Cherry Hill African American Civic Association Black History Month Essay, Poster and Video Contest reception at the Cherry Hill Public Library. Myers Brown surprised Juliya with a visit to the reception after finding out Juliya featured her on a poster for the contest.

Six-year-old Juliya Robertson arrived at the reception for the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association’s Black History Month Essay, Poster and Video Contest expecting to have an enjoyable evening and to see her contest entry, a poster on Philadelphia Dance Company founder and executive artistic director Joan Myers Brown, on display for the community to see.

Juliya had no idea she would be meeting the very same person her project was based on.

After hearing about the poster, Myers Brown, 87, made the trip to the Cherry Hill Public Library to meet Juliya and her family at the reception last Wednesday. The meeting was a complete surprise for Juliya, whose face lit up with a huge smile when she was introduced to her idol.

“I was very surprised,” Juliya said. “I was a lot of excited.”

For this year’s Black History Month Contest, students across the Cherry Hill school district were invited to write an essay, create a poster or make a video on a famous local African American who was born in or from New Jersey or Philadelphia. For Juliya, a first-grade student at Clara Barton Elementary School, deciding to do a poster on Myers Brown was an easy choice. Juliya loves to dance and said she wants to be a ballerina when she grows up.

As the entries were being judged in February, one of the judges, Jarian Graham from the National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa Inc. Eta Chapter, was immediately drawn to Juliya’s poster. Graham was thrilled to see an entry about Myers Brown as her daughters had danced at Philadanco Dance School, which Myers Brown was the founder of.

“What I did was send a picture of her poster to (Myers Brown’s) daughter and her daughter told her,” Graham said. “Then, according to protocol, a letter was sent to Joan, if she would be willing to surprise a little girl who said she wanted to be a ballerina and did the poster.”

Myers Brown liked the idea and decided to attend the reception. Myers Brown arrived at the reception shortly before it began. When Juliya arrived with her family, she didn’t even notice Myers Brown at first, instead taking a seat at one of the tables in the library’s large conference room. When she turned and saw Myers Brown near her poster, however, she became ecstatic.

Juliya’s mother, Aliya Robertson, said Myers Brown’s visit was more than the family could have ever asked for.

“We did not ever imagine this happening,” Aliya said. “We are very very humbled.”

Philadanco founder and long-time dance instructor Joan Myers Brown paid a surprise visit to Cherry Hill first grade student Juliya Robertson after Juliya featured Myers Brown in her entry for the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association Black History Month Essay, Poster and Video Contest. Pictured is Juliya’s father, Judson; Juliya’s mother, Aliya; Juliya and Myers Brown.

Juliya’s poster includes numerous historical photos of Myers Brown and details how she opened the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts nearly 60 years ago to give black students an opportunity to dance during a time when companies were still segregated. Myers Brown was successful and went on to form the professional dance company Philadanco in 1970.

Looking at Juliya’s poster, Myers Brown was impressed with the research and depth of the project.

“Some of those pictures, I haven’t seen in years,” she said.

Myers Brown was also thrilled to talk to Juliya, an African American, about her ambitions to become a ballerina. Myers Brown noted even today, nearly 50 years since the founding of Philadanco, there is a lack of black ballerinas in many dance companies in the United States.

“I’m doing a lot of work now with the International Association of Blacks in Dance trying to get black girls into ballet companies because most of the companies are totally white,” Myers Brown said.

Myers Brown credited Juliya’s father, Judson, and mother, Aliya, for allowing Juliya to pursue her passion. While Juliya isn’t yet enrolled in dance school, Aliya said the family is looking to enroll her soon and could see if Philadanco could help them with the process.

Aliya added meeting Myers Brown was an incredible experience and thanked CHAACA for giving Juliya an opportunity to meet her idol through the Black History Month contest.

“Words cannot describe the sense of pride and passion,” Aliya said. “I can’t describe just that fact that they have the opportunity for students to research individuals in their area, it gives them a sense of pride to say, ‘You did that, I can do it too.’”