It was a show fit for a queen – a diva – LaDeva Davis.
The famed 57-year-old dancer, musician, choreographer and city teacher died on September 8, but Sunday was celebrated with great fanfare with a memorial service that was part remembrance and part performance.
A month before her death — at which time Davis was still an active full-time teacher at Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, where she founded her dance department — Davis, 78, reflected on the type of funeral she wanted one day.
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“She said, ‘When I leave here, I want a big production,'” David Poindexter, Davis’ brother, said at the funeral service, which was held on the big stage at the Met Philadelphia.
Davis got just that.
There was a performance by a concert choir, the dancers gracefully leaping to a modern gospel rendition by Handel Messiah, a lion dance and moving praise, students dancing to a piece Davis had choreographed herself, all punctuated by more standing ovations and thunderous applause than tears. At the front of the stage was a large flower arrangement – white roses spelling “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, due to her work as the host of a popular cooking show on PBS, she participated in a Smithsonian Institution exhibit on food television.
“What an amazing person,” said Johnny Whaley, CAPA’s longtime former manager.
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 heading to a faculty meeting — late — in shades and a rhinestone cap. She was not politically correct; she kept a nameplate on her desk that read “Mess With Me If You Dare,” and she fought for the students, said Joanne Beaver, the current CAPA director.
“She broke down barriers for students and gave them 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 may be the manager of CAPA, but LaDeva Davis was the boss, all day, every day,” Beaver said.
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Under Davis’ direction, CAPA productions flourished. His dancers regularly performed at the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Parade, with Davis urging students that they could perform a costume change in one minute.
Brenda Goldsmith, the parade’s associate producer, recalls a year when she thought CAPA dancers might perform fewer numbers than in previous years.
“She said, ‘No, dear, no less than five production numbers in each show,'” Goldsmith said.
“She was meticulous, tireless, passionate and cantankerous for all the right reasons,” said Sharon Friedler, dance teacher emeritus at Swarthmore College, where Davis taught tap dance two nights a week for 31 years.
William R. Hite Jr., former superintendent of the Philadelphia school district, sent well wishes about a teacher he has spent time with many times during his 10 years in the school system. On one of his last days as superintendent, Hite visited CAPA – and received well wishes as he left Davis.
Hite said he doesn’t remember the exact words she used, but he was struck by something people intuitively felt after being around Davis.
“I vividly remember how good she made me feel after my interaction with her,” Hite said.
She was “Mama Dee” to many of her students, but still “Aunt Dee” to the extended family who were her delight, who honored her with a rendition of one of Davis’ favorite songs, “Home,” from musical comedy The Wiz.
Beth Johnson, Davis’s niece, remembered a woman who loved hot peppers on her hoagies, who prayed every day, who drove cool cars with her favorite music aloud, who took care of her niece and nephew after their parents separated. She suffered, as a black woman born in the 1940s, deprived of opportunities because of her skin color – but that didn’t define her.
Johnson told hundreds of onlookers how much Davis loved them, how much she believed in them. She told them to go out as Davis wanted.
“She would want us to be strong, positive and take action to make the world a better place,” Johnson said. “It’s time to get up.”