Brown gave a live online course to her students last fall from a studio she rents near the Country Club Plaza. (photo by Jim Barcus)

The Celebrated Dancer, Former Ballerina at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Joins the Faculty at UMKC Conservatory

“What have you learned today?”

That’s how esteemed ballerina Karen Brown, now assistant professor of dance at UMKC Conservatory, ends her classes. She not only teaches technique, she teaches empowerment — training dancers to assess their progress internally, to extend their awareness of their bodies and to take control of their progress and careers.

“There’s no glass ceiling as far as technique. There’s no reason to stop improving,” said Brown, known professionally as either Karen Brown or KB.

Brown, born in Oklahoma and raised on the border of Georgia and South Carolina, began dancing professionally at the age of 17, hired by the legendary Arthur Mitchell for Dance Theatre of Harlem. She danced with DTH from 1973 to 1995 as principal ballerina. Her career evolved into a variety of positions in leadership, instruction and administration, taking her around the country, and she’s never stopped dancing.

Her impressive versatility is a hallmark. A 1984 profile in “The New York Times” described her as “one of those dancers who is as compelling in plotless ballets as in dramatic works that require her to portray a character.” Time and again, her roles in modern and classic ballet invited critical acclaim. As Lizzie Borden in Agnes de Mille’s “Fall River Legend” (one of her favorite roles), she set “new standards of interpretation, in a performance of “great modesty and authority,” according to a 1986 review in “The New York Times.” She’s carried this authority with her throughout her career.

Arriving in Kansas City, though, was a strange situation. When the pandemic caused travel to stop in March 2020, just a few days before her interview, UMKC suspended the search. Then, in July, she was contacted to see if she was still interested in the position, and, after an interview over Zoom, she was offered the job, without ever visiting the campus or getting to know the city.

However, she said, “It was an easy yes.” She knew each of the dance faculty, either having danced together or having seen their work, and she knew it would be a compatible fit. In fact, she and Michael Blake, assistant professor of modern dance, have danced together in the group PARADIGM and won their Bessie Awards at the same time.

Brown had a whirlwind adjustment period, arriving in Kansas City sight unseen. New faculty orientation was finished by the time she was in town, and with few people on campus, she was somewhat on her own. Fortunately, she’s not afraid to ask questions and quickly figured it out.

In her first semester at UMKC, she introduced Reinforced Motor Function, developed by Sean McLeod, an emotional-based technique that is scientifically grounded to create healthier dancing for longer careers.

“I do a lot of visioning. I wrote down the kind of situation I would like to be in . . . to have colleagues who had high levels of self-esteem and to work with students who were curious and kind. I got all of it, every single piece of it,” she reflected.

In her first semester at UMKC, she introduced Reinforced Motor Function, developed by Sean McLeod, an emotional-based technique that is scientifically grounded to create healthier dancing for longer careers. It’s a system that Brown uses herself, and they plan to add the course to the regular curriculum.

“I can see how this work is sustaining my career and my body, keeping me injury free, and I want the world to know about it,” said Brown.

“I’m excited that the university is trying to find ways to support Black exceptionalism, not just because you are Black, but because the college is seeking excellence.”

Of all the unfamiliar events surrounding her time in Kansas City, teaching online was the least of her worries, since she’d already been doing that type of instruction for years. Despite distance and shifting technologies, she aims to make her classes as holistic and connecting as possible. She turns the camera on early and chats with students as they are putting on their shoes and warming up, checking in and sharing small talk, just like she would in a face-to-face studio.

“We have to learn how to train ourselves to build community in this environment,” Brown said.

She doesn’t spend all her time in Kansas City, though. After a nomadic career, she’s made a home base back in South Carolina, converting her family’s home into The Karen Brown International Coaching Studio.

Last summer, on Juneteenth, she dedicated the renewed space — what she calls her “broadcast center” — to her friend and benefactor Mel Tomlinson and to the legacy of Arthur Mitchell.

From this center, she works on a variety of projects. Along with teaching, she started a program with a local care facility for patients with Alzheimer’s disease. She continues to dance, commissioning works to perform solo, broadcast from her studio. In January, she began working with the Chicago-based Deeply Rooted Dance Theater as a leadership consultant. Also in the works are a podcast called “The Anointed Ones,” interviewing the people Mitchell chose to join DTH, and a curated television show revisiting places significant to her career.

Throughout her career, and despite the pandemic, she’s taken on new opportunities and continued to share her love, knowledge and passion for dance and for people who dance.

“Artists solve problems,” said Brown. “We will figure it out.”

To learn more about Karen Brown, visit

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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