It’s the last day before summer vacation for the Philadelphia Public School System, and as I walk into the Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA), it’s like stepping into a scene from “Fame” — dancers, dressed in tights and sweats, warming up in the hallways; kids carrying instruments and props as they scurry off to parts unknown; a crisp voice giving instructions over the PA system; various individuals randomly running and screaming; people coming and going. Like in the Land of Oz … it’s performing arts pandemonium.
In the center of it all is a diminutive diva, whom, despite her small stature, is clearly large and in charge. LaDeva M. Davis — who has been on the CAPA faculty since the school opened in 1978 — is the dance director, as well as the choreographer and mastermind behind the “CAPA Kids’” dazzling artistic display that is part of Philly’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade on The Parkway.
When this year’s Wawa Independence Day Parade steps off at 11 a.m. from 5th & Chestnut streets, it will be Davis who is in the spotlight as the centerpiece of a float titled “Lights - Camera - Action,” honoring the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education to desegregate school in America. The beloved educator with the jazzy name, who began teaching in Philadelphia public schools in 1965, will be surrounded by a bevy of current and former students along with an array of CAPA dancers on and off the float. The parade’s reigning Miss Philadelphia, Diamond Edmonds, is a former dance student of Davis’ and a Philadelphia school teacher. In addition, CAPA graduate Tamika Patton, recording artist and star of the Off-Broadway show “Sing Mahalia Sing!” will perform from the float. As we finally settle down during a quiet moment in her dance studio, Davis is filled with pride and excitement over the impending honor.
“Todd Marcocci contacted me and said that he had an idea. He’s the producer of the Fourth of July Parade — he’s one of the co-producers for the Thanksgiving Day Parade, too, ” Davis explained. “He said this was the 60th year of the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision for integrating the schools. He said, ‘You’ve been teaching 49 years, you’re 70 years old, you’re still doing it. You’re still choreographing for us and still working for the school system. What better person to put on a float? There is nobody better to represent education in this city!’”
Indeed, there could not be a more appropriate representative of Philadelphia’s educational excellence than Davis, a paragon of Philadelphia’s arts and culture landscape. Besides, how could a petite powerhouse who danced with Josephine Baker at the Earle Theater and performed at Philly’s famous Uptown Theater with Pearl Bailey, be denied?
A South Philly native, Davis attended Germantown High School with celebrated entertainer Lola Falana and dance legend Judith Jamison, before going on to study piano with the revered Natalie Hinderas at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now the University of the Arts) and earning her bachelor’s degree in music education. While she is a talented musician, singer, dancer and choreographer, her gift for teaching began to manifest itself before she was even aware of it.
“My father was an advocate of education, as was my mother, and my brother was already a teacher,” Davis recalled. “And I always liked children. Even when I was growing up, the little kids followed me around like I was the Pied Piper, and we’d sit on the steps and I’d read stories to them. On Saturday mornings, whether you liked it or not, before you got ready to play or went to 9th Street to get the groceries, you scrubbed the steps. They’d put the fire hydrant on and we’d clean the street.
“Well, when we came back … I didn’t skate very well, and if it was a day when everybody was skating, the little kids would come over and sit on my steps, and I would go and get my books — the Golden Books — and I would read stories to them. My mother said to me one day, ‘You know, you’re a born teacher.’”
About an hour into my visit, the final bell for the school year had rung, yet the hallways were still filled with students, and the principal, via intercom, finally had to tell them, gently but firmly, to leave. Since when does the principal have to kick the students out of the building on the last day of school? This certainly confirms their commitment to their craft and their love for their school.
Whether it’s praise, an encouraging hug or a gentle scolding, every student that encounters “Mama D’s” nurturing presence receives her personal acknowledgement and attention.
“Everyone would call her ‘Mama D’ and I was like, ‘Why does everyone call her that?’ But now I see that she’s like an actual mother to us. She actually cares about us,” said Khalid Mosley, a senior dance student who was allowed to switch his major from visual arts after being thoroughly vetted by Davis. “I’m not saying that other departments don’t care about their students, but I could call Ms. Davis. I could go to Ms. Davis’ house. She’s just like a mother.”
“The parents call me ‘Mama D,’ too,” Davis added.
While the entertainer is always just beneath the surface, Davis’ priority has always been, and always will be, her eager, dedicated and supremely talented students, whom she even helps to prepare for college auditions.
“She does not give up on people,” said Dan Wisniewski, a CAPA graduate who stopped by to visit after completing his freshman year as a musical theater major at Ithaca College. “And she drives them so hard, because she knows that they can do better! If they’re not doing up to par, she’s not afraid to yell, in the sense of making them do better. She’s like, ‘I know you can do better than this! I know!’ I just remember all the Thanksgiving Day parades, they did so well because they had such a good teacher driving them to that point. There’s another thing. She very much values loyalty, and she’s very loyal to her students, who in turn are very loyal to her.”
“What makes her so special is, she really cares for us, like, she’ll do anything for you if you need it,” added senior dance student Arielle Hunt, a member of Davis’ prestigious dance company. “She really goes out to do a lot of things for us and we’re appreciative of that because she really could retire at any time, and she’s still here teaching us.”
Indeed, what is it that keeps Davis going, despite the troubles that have plagued Philadelphia’s public schools?
“I like the idea of getting my parents’ values over to them. ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ never hurt anybody,” she explained. “It’s lost in today’s world. Nobody’s got time for politeness. Nobody’s got time for manners. I’m old school. That means more to me than whether you can twirl around on a dime 50 times!
“If you don’t have self-respect, if you don’t have respect for others, nobody’s going to respect you. In fact, they will hire the little girl or the little boy who doesn’t even dance as well as you, but they’re not a pain in the behind to get along with. They are team players, they have manners, they’re considerate of other people, and to me that’s very important — I like the idea of impaling that on them!”
The Philadelphia Independence Day Parade through Historic Philadelphia airs at 11 a.m. on 6ABC.
Contact Tribune Staff Writer Kimberly C. Roberts at (215) 893-5753 or email@example.com.