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‘Time to rise’: In grand style, a farewell to Philly dance, education legend LaDeva Davis

It was a show fit for a queen — a diva — LaDeva Davis.

The renowned dancer, musician, choreographer, and city teacher of 57 years died Sept. 8, but on Sunday was celebrated in grand style with a memorial service that was equal parts remembrance and performance.

A month before her death — at which time Davis was still a full-time, active teacher at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, where she founded its dance department — Davis, 78, reflected on what kind of funeral she wanted someday.

» READ MORE: LaDeva Davis, beloved Philadelphia dance teacher at CAPA, music producer, and entertainer, has died at 78

“She said, ‘When I leave here, I want a big production,” David Poindexter, Davis’ brother, said at the funeral service, held on the grand stage at the Met Philadelphia.

Davis got just that.

There was a performance by a concert choir, dancers leaping gracefully to a modern gospel interpretation of Handel’s Messiah, a lion dance and stirring eulogies, students dancing to a piece Davis had choreographed herself, all punctuated by more ovations and thunderous applause than tears. At the front of the stage was a large flower arrangement — white roses spelling out “LaDeva.”

Davis was a Renaissance woman — not just a teacher, but a gifted dancer, singer and musician; a kung fu master; a Grammy-winning producer and, by virtue of her work as host of a popular PBS cooking show, part of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit about food television.

“What an extraordinary person,” said Johnny Whaley, the former longtime CAPA principal.

Davis was stylish, a standout, whether she was choreographing her CAPA dancers on a national stage at the Cherry Blossom Festival in a fur coat or sailing into a faculty meeting — late — in shades and a rhinestone ballcap. She was not politically correct; she kept a nameplate on her desk that said “Mess With Me If You Dare,” and she fought for students, said Joanne Beaver, the current CAPA principal.

“She removed obstacles for students and provided them with opportunities they never would have had without her. There will never be another educator like her,” Beaver said. Davis called Beaver “Boss Lady,” but Beaver knew what the score was.

“I might be the principal of CAPA, but LaDeva Davis was the boss, all day, every day,” Beaver said.

» READ MORE: An ‘old school’ treasure celebrates 50 years in Philly classrooms

Under Davis’ direction, CAPA productions radiated. Her dancers regularly performed at Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving parade, with Davis urging the students that yes, they could complete a costume change in a minute.

Brenda Goldsmith, associate producer of the parade, remembers one year when she thought she might have the CAPA dancers perform fewer numbers than in prior years.

“She said, ‘No, dear, no less than five production numbers in each parade,’” Goldsmith said.

“She was meticulous, tireless, passionate, and irascible for all the right reasons,” said Sharon Friedler, dance professor emeritus of Swarthmore College, where Davis taught tap two nights a week for 31 years.

William R. Hite Jr., former superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, sent wishes about a teacher he spent time with on multiple occasions during his 10 years in the school system. On one of his last days as superintendent, Hite visited CAPA — and received well wishes on his departure from Davis.

Hite said he doesn’t remember the exact words she used, but he was struck by something people felt intuitively after being in Davis’ presence.

“I remember so vividly how good she made me feel after my interaction with her,” Hite said.

She was “Mama Dee” to many of her students, but always “Aunt Dee” to the extended family that was her joy, who honored her with an interpretation of one of Davis’ favorite songs, “Home,” from the musical The Wiz.

Beth Johnson, Davis’ niece, remembered a woman who loved hot peppers on her hoagies, who prayed daily, who drove cool cars with her favorite music up loud, who cared for her niece and nephew after their parents split up. She suffered, as a Black woman born in the 1940s, kept from opportunities because of her skin color — but this did not define her.

Johnson told the audience of hundreds how much Davis loved them, how much she believed in them. She told them to go out as Davis wanted them to.

“She would want us to be strong, positive and take steps to make the world better,” Johnson said. “It is time to rise.”

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