Building interracial bridges through dance

April 7 concert pays tribute to founders of Dayton Ballet and DCDC.

Credit: DCDC

Credit: DCDC

Try to imagine the Miami Valley’s cultural landscape without two of our greatest treasures: the Dayton Ballet and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

It’s thanks to the talent, vision and determination of three special women that those wonderful dance companies are ours to enjoy.

What you may not know is that there’s a close connection among the three women who started it all: Josephine and Hermine Schwarz, founders of the Dayton Ballet, and Jeraldyne Blunden, founder of DCDC. Their historic bond will be celebrated at an upcoming concert slated for Sunday, April 7, at Beth Jacob Synagogue. The program, titled “When Dance Transcends Barriers: The Story of Jewish and African-American Dance in Dayton,” will be presented by DCDC2.

Founded in 1975, DCDC2 provides opportunities for recent graduates and undergraduates from local and national dance artists to further their dance training and gain performance experience in a professional learning environment. The 10 current members of the company come from throughout the United States.

“With everything going on in the world today, it’s more important than ever to build bridges of understanding and cooperation,” said Helen Holcomb, who is serving on the planning committee for the event. “We think this is a good example of how these bridges were built 50 years ago and they are just as important today. Having DCDC dancers come to our synagogue and perform in our sanctuary is a wonderful bridge.”

Shonna Hickman-Matlock, director of DCDC2 and resident choreographer, said the narrative program will be introduced by local arts enthusiast Burt Saidel and will be followed by a Q&A with DCDC Senior Artistic Advisor Kevin Ward.

“Our concert will reflect upon the ways in which these women from different cultural backgrounds supported and respected each other and shared a common passion and commitment to dance,” Hickman-Matlock said. She’s also hoping to demonstrate the ways in which the intertwining of two cultures transcended human boundaries through dance.

“During a time of racism, when it was not an accepted practice to help African Americans, the Schwarz sisters were courageous to provide an opportunity for these aspiring dancers of color,” she added.

How it began

The story begins in the 1940s when a group of African-American mothers in Dayton approached the Schwarz sisters, asking them to teach their children.

“Back in those days, all dance studios were white and the other studios all said they had no room or were closed,” Hickman-Matlock explained. “The sisters said they would love to teach the children but could lose their business as a result. They offered to find a place where they could teach the African-American children; that place was the Linden Recreation Center on Dayton’s west side.”

Two of the youngsters who signed up were an 8-year-old Jeraldyne Blunden and her sister, Carol Ann Shockley.

“The Schwarz sisters mentored, supported and remained an influence on Jeraldyne as she eventually built her own company,” said Hickman-Matlock, adding that all of them eventually became colleagues in the field of dance, collaborating and attending each other’s performances.

“This African American woman and these Jewish sisters had respect for each other when it was not the norm,” concludes Hickman-Matlock. “These women were dedicated advocates for dance who put race in the background and their commitment to the art of dance in the forefront.”

Credit: Dayton Daily News Archive

Credit: Dayton Daily News Archive

The aforementioned Ward studied and worked with both dance companies and their founders over the years. He said Dayton was an important Midwest hub for dance because of them.

“The Schwarz sisters were dance pioneers,” he said. “I remember Miss Hermene as the quieter one who handled a lot of the nuts and bolts of the organization. I took a lot of classes from Miss Jo. She was very serious in her work and she was a no-nonsense person. She spoke her mind, not in a cruel way, but let you know what was what. She wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion.”

He said in many ways Blunden was similar to Miss Jo.

“She also had no nonsense traits and was a perfectionist who insisted on excellence in all you did. She was not afraid to voice her opinions. All three of these ladies were modest leaders but had no illusions about the work they were doing and the necessity of the work they were doing. They believed what they were doing was important ... and they set about making all that happen.”

The upcoming concert

Beth Jacob congregant Sophia Cohen is credited with coming up with the idea for the upcoming concert and working on a grant proposal that has made it a reality.

“I taught in the Dayton Public Schools for 20 years and DCDC had performed at the schools,” recalled Cohen, who grew up taking ballet and has always loved dance. She and other synagogue volunteers decided to apply to the Innovation Grant program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton.

Credit: Knack Video + Photo

Credit: Knack Video + Photo

The Federation’s CEO Cathy Gardner said the grant committee seeks out programs and projects that are innovative, collaborative and engage the entire Jewish community.

“The grant committee saw the relevance of the ways in which the Jewish community was active in the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “The partnership of the Schwarz sisters and Ms. Blunden was a prime example of the Jewish and Black communities — both minorities —working together for the better good.”


What: “When Dance Transcends Barriers: The Story of Jewish and African-American Dance in Dayton.” A dance concert by DCDC2.

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, April 7

Where: Beth Jacob Synagogue, 7020 N. Main St., Dayton

Tickets: $18 at the door. A discounted rate of $10 per ticket may be purchased in advance for groups of four or more. Order through

More info: 937-610-1555

FYI: This presentation is a collaboration between Beth Jacob Synagogue and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. Funding provided by an Innovation Grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton.

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