Ms. Davis was a fierce advocate for children — “not just making sure they knew about dance, but that they knew about life,” said her friend and classmate Judith Jamison, the dancer and choreographer.
LaDeva M. Davis, 78, a legendary Philadelphia teacher, choreographer, dancer, producer, and entertainer, died Thursday, Sept. 8, of a stroke at Cooper University Hospital.
A founding educator at the famed Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Ms. Davis was a full-time, active teacher there until her death. Her teaching career spanned 57 years.
Ms. Davis lived several lives, all of them fascinating.
As a child growing up in South Philadelphia, she made weekly appearances on the Parisian Taylor Kiddie Hour Radio Show. Later, she sang in supper clubs. In the 1970s, she hosted What’s Cooking?, a WHYY show, which grew so popular she became the first Black woman to have a nationally syndicated cooking show and was included in a Smithsonian Institution exhibit about food television. She was a kung fu master, and loved deep-sea fishing. She was nominated for a Grammy for her role as coproducer of the 2007 Dixie Hummingbirds album Keeping It Real: The Last Man Standing.
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But Ms. Davis’ life’s work was dance, and a testament to that is CAPA, and the thousands of young people whose lives she shaped, whose careers she launched. Ms. Davis’ students have gone on to dance on Broadway, to form their own dance companies, to teach and to work for such noted dance troupes as the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the American Ballet Theatre.
Ms. Davis, who was a longtime resident of Levittown, joked that she had thousands of children, but no stretch marks. She had many nicknames, but perhaps none so popular as “Mama Dee.”
“She was an icon, she was a legend, but she believed in students more than anybody I’ve ever met in my career,” said Joanne Beaver, CAPA’s principal. “She pushed to bring out the very, very best in every child. She never ever gave up on a kid, ever. None of us will ever know the magnitude of the lives she touched, people she changed.”
Judith Jamison, the iconic American dancer, was a friend — the two attended Germantown High together, and then what is now the University of the Arts. Jamison said she will remember Ms. Davis best as a fierce advocate for children — “not just making sure they knew about dance, but that they knew about life.”
Jamison remembers Ms. Davis as a talented piano player. “Really, she could do anything. And she was an all-around nice person, and giving. She had a great sense of humor, a terrific laugh.”
Shawn-Lamere Williams, artistic director of Eleone Dance Theatre and a 1987 graduate of CAPA, appeared at a 2015 event at the school honoring Ms. Davis’ 50 years in education. If a teacher’s success is measured in the accomplishments of his or her students, Williams said at the time, Ms. Davis was peerless.
“LaDeva has always been supportive of me, no matter what,” Williams said. “I remember in 12th grade, she wrote in my yearbook, shows may come and go, but our friendship will be forever, and it’s been 30-plus years.”
On a 2014 Boyz II Men visit to CAPA, their alma mater, Shawn Stockman said Ms. Davis was a mentor to the group members, despite the fact they were not dancers — crediting Ms. Davis with producing their showcases and making sure they took classes seriously.
That she cared whether her students got to class on time was a Davis hallmark. She minded students’ academic grades just as much as how well they did in dance class, and made students bring their report cards to her so she could examine them. She was a stickler for perfect grammar, good posture, and respect.
Ms. Davis was a winner of the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, a prize given annually to the city’s best educators.
“You never forget a lady like that,” said Charlotte Calmels, a CAPA parent. There are 100 students in CAPA’s dance department, and when news of Ms. Davis’ stroke reached them, “we had 100 kids in tears,” Calmels said.
Under Ms. Davis’ tutelage, and with her choreography, CAPA students performed on the school’s stage often, but also regularly on larger stages, too. CAPA dancers routinely put on shows at Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and have also appeared in productions as far away as California and Florida.
When a student didn’t have the means to get new ballet shoes, Ms. Davis made it happen, often dipping into her own pocket, Beaver said.
Julie Calmels, the senior dance captain, said Ms. Davis’ loss is profound.
“She could be tough, but even if she was telling you something you didn’t want to hear, you knew she was doing it because she loved you, and it was for your good,” Julie said. “Without her, nothing will be the same — the whole school is affected.”
Ms. Davis doted on her family, too. Her niece Beth Johnson remembers Ms. Davis driving to New York for boots Johnson wanted because they weren’t available in Philadelphia. She also spent four hours gently brushing out Johnson’s hair when her scalp was tender.
“If I wanted to go from here to the moon, she was going to see what she could do to get it done,” Johnson said. “That kind of love and affection was my whole life.”
Stylish always, Ms. Davis favored fur coats and could rock a sequined gold ballcap like nobody’s business. She kept a grand piano and a pool table at home. She could be outspoken, and if she cared about you, she lavished you with love and praise.
For Beaver’s recent birthday, Ms. Davis gave her a gift and card with a message written inside: “Happy birthday, gorgeous! Life might not be the party we had hoped for, but while we’re here, we might as well dance. Love you, your friend forever, LaDeva.”
In addition to her work at CAPA, Ms. Davis taught at Swarthmore College, served two terms as president of the board of Philadanco, and worked as choreographer for commercials, local theater companies, and a Mummers fancy brigade. As an entertainer, she performed with Josephine Baker, Pearl Bailey, Natalie Cole, Billy Dee Williams, Danny Thomas, Jamie Farr, Alan King, Jimmy Walker, and Gregory Hines.
She won the National Council of Negro Women Inc.’s Mary McLeod Bethune Award for leadership, excellence, and achievement in education in 2015.
Born in South Philadelphia, Ms. Davis was the daughter of LaDeva and Edward “Chick” Davis, a businessman and billiards player who owned pool halls in the city and is memorialized in a mural in South Philadelphia. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson would play pool with her father when he visited Philadelphia; the famous tap dancer showed Chick Davis a few steps, Ms. Davis said in a 2017 interview; he then taught his daughter. Her mother insisted on formal dance lessons.
Ms. Davis graduated from the Philadelphia Musical Academy, and began her career in the Philadelphia School District as a teacher at the now-closed Bartlett Junior High in 1965. She joined the CAPA faculty in 1978, when the school was opened.
Asked when she might consider retiring, Ms. Davis, a breast cancer survivor, said in a 2015 Inquirer story that she was “staying put. I will leave when I become unproductive.”
She never did.
Ms. Davis is survived by Johnson and Ed Davis, her nephew. Funeral details are not yet complete.