Dancing With Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown

The City Councilwoman — and former professional dancer — takes us, yes, line dancing at her favorite Mount Airy haunt.

Photograph by Christopher Leaman

Photograph by Christopher Leaman

Time: 9 p.m. Day: Thursday. Location: 7165 Lounge.

[Reynolds Brown pulls out a binder full of old photographs and a folder stuffed with press clips about her.]

PM: What’s in the scrapbook?

BLONDELL: I’m an incurable romantic, and I have pictures here of days gone by. So this is my identification card for when I worked in Atlantic City at the Brighton Hotel, one of the first casinos to have professional dancers. It was 1980 when the show opened. I commuted back and forth for a year, then the show closed. Can you guess why?

PM: Can I guess why …

BLONDELL: We were too family-oriented.

PM: They wanted more leg?

BLONDELL: [nods]

PM: You were born in South Carolina.

BLONDELL: Sumter, South Carolina. My mom moved here when I was six. She was one of 16, and one of two sisters who came to the North to find a better life for her family. My mom taught, and then my father died when I was 16, so my mother was left to raise seven children alone.

PM: I want to ask about your alma mater, Penn State. What did you think of the Joe Paterno thing?

BLONDELL: I think somebody dragged their feet. Someone, or a group, turned a blind eye, and thankfully, that reality was uncovered.

PM: You say somebody dragged their feet. Who do you think it was?

BLONDELL: Well, I’d be curious to know, at what point does an issue like that get to the board of trustees?

PM: Your passion for dancing hasn’t dissipated. I was hoping we could just get a drink. But your office said, “Nooooo, you two are going dancing.”

BLONDELL: Being a dancer is like being an athlete.

PM: You take care of yourself. You eat right.

BLONDELL: Yogurt, almonds, granola in the morning. Boiled eggs if I have time. My staff knows: 99.99 percent of the time, I want a salad for lunch. For dinner: Fish and
green vegetables, fish and green vegetables, fish and green vegetables.

PM: You do look pretty good, Councilwoman.

BLONDELL: I work at it every day.

PM: Do you think voters care about that stuff? You look at Chris Christie, and you think, We’ve never had a fat president. Well, Taft. But that was over a century ago, and there was no cable.

BLONDELL: I believe the answer is yes. I think there are different standards for different kinds of candidates. The reality is that as a woman, you have to look your best 100 percent of the time. And don’t complain about it.

PM: I’m sure you’ve followed the “Can women have it all?” debate.

BLONDELL: I read a book by the former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, very early in my career, called Having It All. That was before I was a mother. And at that time, I actually believed that. Now I believe that women can have it all, but not all at the same time. [Waiter brings plate of chicken wings. We do not touch them.]

PM: Not allowed on the Blondell diet?

BLONDELL: There’s so much skin on them. That’s all fat.

PM: How many kids do you have?

BLONDELL: I have my daughter Brielle. She’s a freshman at Syracuse. She went there because of the diversity, school spirit, and they have Greek life, which she cares about.

PM: Penn State also takes that sort of thing somewhat seriously, if I’m not mistaken.

BLONDELL: You have to have your priorities in order.

PM: Were you a play-hard-work-hard kind of student?

BLONDELL: Very much so.

PM: A couple years ago, your name was in the conversation for the 2015 mayor’s race. These days, not so much. [Reynolds Brown admitted to a series of ethics violations in 2013.] Is that still something you’re thinking about?

BLONDELL: Running for mayor is not on my itinerary.

PM: Why not?

BLONDELL: I still love Council. I love the policy. I love debate.

PM: How do you feel you’ve been treated by the media?

BLONDELL: You have to be okay to accept the good, the bad and, sometimes, the unkind. And so you say a lot of prayers, and you focus on why you’re there. And hopefully surround yourself with folks who love you and know your heart. That’s what pushed me through.

PM: Does that mean you don’t feel the media has treated you well?

BLONDELL: At the end of the day, I have to focus on my work. Because the press has a job to do, and I have a job to do.

PM: We’ve never had a female mayor in Philadelphia. Why?

BLONDELL: You have to consider what’s required to run for any elected office. I believe organizations win. You also have to have a candidate who is articulate, who cares, who has some vision about how to make Philly better. So having all those stars align at once can be difficult.

PM: So you’re not seeing anyone else with all those elements?

BLONDELL: I have not seen anyone else with that combination all at one time.

PM: So, what kind of dancing do you want to do tonight?

BLONDELL: Line dancing. Hopefully, other people will join in. The beauty is, you don’t need a partner.

PM: Is that beautiful? I could probably use a partner. I’m coming in here blind.

BLONDELL: I don’t believe you.

PM: I’m serious. I have no idea what I’m doing.

[We dance the Electric Slide — well, she dances, holding my hand. I flail. Afterward, she pulls from her handbag a piece of paper with 20 questions about women and politics, a quiz that she administers with some regularity. Sample question: Who was the first woman to appear on a major party’s presidential nomination ticket? I score a 14.]

BLONDELL: It’s amazing to me, when I give this to women, how many do not do well. So congratulations.

PM: What did you think of the other dancers? How was the competition out there?

BLONDELL: [pause] Competition?

Originally published as “Dancing With Blondell Reynolds Brown” in the November 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Read more from our Conversation Issue.