With deep sadness, I write to share the news that Associate in Dance LaDeva Maureen Davis died of a stroke on Thursday, Sept. 8. She was 78.
LaDeva, who served on the faculty for 31 years, is remembered as a true inspiration whose success in dance and a wide range of other creative pursuits was only matched by her passion for teaching and supporting her students.
LaDeva is survived by a niece, Beth Johnson, and nephew, Ed Davis. Plans for a memorial will be shared when they are available. The family requests that condolences be sent to the attention of Kristen Reid, 235 W. Chelten Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19144.
I invite you to read more below about LaDeva and her many contributions to our community.
In Honor of Associate in Dance LaDeva Davis
Associate in Dance LaDeva M. Davis died Thursday, Sept. 8, at age 78. With her passing, Swarthmore has lost a revered, dedicated, and Grammy-nominated educator, choreographer, and performer.
“LaDeva’s enthusiasm for dance was infectious,” says Olivia Sabee, associate professor and chair of the Dance Program. “She masterfully built history into her tap technique and repertory classes, welcoming beginning dancers alongside those with experience and facilitating growth for all the dancers that attended her classes. We will deeply miss her presence in our studios and her choreography in our concerts.”
“LaDeva introduced hundreds of Swarthmore students to the discipline and joy of tap,” says Professor Emerita of Dance Sharon Friedler. “She was beloved by beginners and advanced tappers alike and built a supportive community in the studio and on stage.”
Sally Hess served on the Music and Dance Department faculty for almost 20 years. “I watched LaDeva teach with gusto and generosity, and I watched her students learn with gratitude and devotion,” she says. “She was meticulous, tireless, passionate, and irascible for all the right reasons. We loved and admired her, then and now.”
Davis was born and raised in South Philly, the daughter of LaDeva and Edward “Chick” Davis, a billiards champion who owned pool halls on South Broad St. in what was then the heart of the city’s Black community. Growing up in that milieu, Davis developed an early and profound connection to Philadelphia’s storied past as a center of Black arts and culture.
Starting at age 4 and for several years afterwards, Davis sang and danced regularly on and toured regionally with The Parisian Taylor Kiddie Hour Radio Show, which broadcast weekly live from the Royal Theater at 16th and South Sts. She danced with legendary performers on some of the city’s other well-known stages, such as Josephine Baker at the Earle Theater and Pearl Bailey at the Uptown Theater. She took piano lessons with Anna Burton, an accompanist at Union Baptist Church where pioneering opera star Marian Anderson did some of her earliest singing. Davis attended the same ballet school, Marion Cuyjet’s Judimar School of Dance, as the renowned dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison, a lifelong friend. She also took tap lessons — a payment option her father offered to some of the local hoofers he beat at pool — from virtuoso dancer LaVaughn Robinson.
After graduating from Germantown High School, Davis attended the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now the University of the Arts), where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music education. In a 1996 interview, she recalled how her father paid for her tuition by traveling to New York City to challenge — and defeat — the master pool hustler Minnesota Fats.
Balancing teaching with singing gigs in Philadelphia supper clubs early in her career, Davis imagined she would spend a few years in classrooms before working full-time in show business. And it could have happened.
Davis’ many interests and abilities manifested themselves in everything from the jazz band she once fronted to the movies and national ad campaigns she worked on, including The Cotton Club, Trading Places, and a Snapple commercial with Spike Lee. She did stunt driving for an episode of The Equalizer. And her WHYY-produced show What’s Cooking?, which featured nutritional, low-cost meals and Davis’ unique personality, got picked up by PBS and aired on more than 100 television stations across the country for two seasons in the mid-1970s. As a result, she became the first Black woman to host a nationally syndicated cooking show on public television, which led to her inclusion in an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
"But the children captured my heart," Davis said. "Every time I said I was leaving, some child changed my mind."
First at Bartlett Junior High School and then as a founding faculty member at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), Davis ultimately devoted 57 years to teaching children in the Philadelphia School District. At CAPA, she helped write the dance curriculum: ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, tap, flamenco. Her students routinely competed nationally, received scholarships to colleges and universities, and pursued successful careers on Broadway and with the country’s top dance companies.
Davis’ myriad interests also led her to Swarthmore. In her spare time, she studied kung fu and was part of a group from Philadelphia’s Chinatown that performed the traditional Chinese Lion dance for then-President Al Bloom's inauguration. At the time, the Dance Program’s tap teacher was moving on, and they needed someone to take on the role. Friedler recalls that, as a host for the local performers, she spoke extensively with Davis.
“After seeing LaDeva's enthusiasm and professionalism in performance during the Lion dance, and learning of her own history as a tapper in the Philadelphia 'rhythm tap' tradition, I invited her to apply,” she says. “She was an immediate hit with our students.”
C. Kemal Nance ’92 taught in the studio next to Davis’ for many years. “What I will remember most about my colleague and friend is that she was a fierce champion for young people,” he says. “She was a nurturer and demanded excellence from every student with whom she came in contact.”
Fouad Dakwar ’22 first took a class with Davis as a freshman and soon after served as her T.A. until he graduated last spring. “LaDeva was serious about the work, but she had a playful attitude about it, and often reminded us that our success as dancers is just a matter of the effort we put in. And she inspired me to pour my heart and soul into it every day,” he says. “Most importantly, LaDeva is a personal role model for me in how to lead a deeply fulfilling and loving life as an artist with creativity embedded in the soul.”
At Swarthmore, Davis spent Monday and Wednesday evenings on campus teaching her tap classes, for which students could earn P.E. credit. For 31 years, she also contributed new works to nearly all of the program’s annual fall and spring dance concerts. This year’s fall concert, which will take place on Dec. 2 and 3, will be dedicated to her memory.
For her part, Davis regarded her Swarthmore students with special affection. “It’s rewarding” to have determined students, she once said, noting that Swatties like to learn: “They’re like sponges! It’s like I died and went to teacher heaven!”
Davis’ verve and commitment to her community knew virtually no bounds. She taught modern, jazz, and hip-hop dance at the Chester Fine Arts Center. She served on the steering committees for dance and theater teacher certifications and the Pennsylvania Arts Education Council, as well as for two consecutive terms as president of Philadanco’s Board of Directors. She also continued her prolific choreography work, including for Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving and Washington, D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Parades, and appearances as a featured artist in national commercials and regional theater productions.
Davis achieved more acclaim after she and her business partner Ira Tucker, Jr. produced Still... Keepin' It Real: The Last Man Standing for the Philadelphia-based Dixie Hummingbirds, one of the most influential music groups of all time. Their efforts garnered a 2007 Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Gospel Album.
The accolades kept coming. In 2015, Davis received the National Council of Negro Women’s Mary McLeod Bethune Award for leadership, excellence, and achievement in education. The same year, CAPA surprised her with a tribute program featuring current and former students in honor of her 50th year of teaching. She also received the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, awarded annually to Philadelphia’s best educators. In 2019, Davis was honored at the Mann Center’s “Voices of Hope” Black History Month Celebration as an iconic educator whose “work and determination have greatly impacted the lives of the city’s students.”
Friedler recalls Davis’ call to her Swarthmore students: “‘Everyone help one!’ This built bridges between dancers and is an excellent model both for performance and for life.”
For Nance, her name said it all: “LaDeva was a diva — a consummate professional, a star.”