Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed his signature work “Revelations” on its 60th anniversary. (Screenshot/AlvinAiley.org)
By Jessica Dortch
AFRO News Editor
Who knew that a Black man born early on in the Great Depression would rise to international fame and impact many lives through movement. Alvin Ailey was more than a dancer and a choreographer. He was a visionary who became the change he wanted to see in the country and the world. Ailey imagined a place where people of all races and sexual orientations were free to tell the story of their lives through dance and for African Americans specifically to portray the uniqueness of the Black experience, just as he had.
Ailey was born in Texas to a teenage mother and a father who abandoned them both. His mother washed clothes, picked cotton and performed other domestic duties while they endured the cruelty of the Jim Crow South.
Their local congregation, the Mount Olive Baptist Church, where Ailey spent the majority of his time, made the harsh realities of segregation and discrimmination as Black Americans in the south a little more bearable. These experiences would later be portrayed in Ailey’s most prized pieces.
Ailey fell in love with dance in high school after moving to Los Angeles with his mother in his early teenage years. It was through field trips to the ballet and the theater that he was exposed to the arts.
After high school, Ailey attended college for a short time, but his career as a dancer was quickly taking off. He was introduced to Lester Horton’s dance studio and began performing in Horton’s Dance Theater.
Horton was a legendary dancer, choreographer and instructor who had one of the first integrated dance companies in the country. Ailey was able to land a job as a dancer when jobs were scarce for people of color. Horton’s sudden death shortly after created an opportunity for Ailey to become the artistic director at just 23-years old.
In 1958, Ailey’s vision came to fruition with the founding of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater that welcomed dancers from all walks of life with open arms. Of all the productions that Ailey created, “Revelations” one of his most famed early works, was inspired by his deep southern roots.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater explained on their website that “Revelations” came from Ailey’s “blood memories of his childhood in rural Texas and the Baptist Church.”
Ailey had a way of extracting the essence of Black culture, which in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s was disrespected and disregarded, and displaying it with beauty, style and grace.
He challenged discrimination and inequality in every form and channeled these feelings into dances that are incredibly human.
Even in his personal life he challenged societal norms by living in his truth as a homosexual man at a time that it was deemed unacceptable. He dared us all to redefine what it meant to be masculine, feminine, gay, straight, Black and White. He created a space for African Americans to feel empowered and unapologetic about who they are and where they come from and that rich legacy lives on today.
Ailey, the person and the brand synonymously, continues to represent top tier talent that transcends racial cultural bounds. His dance theater and other programs are internationally acclaimed and he has received awards posthumously including honorary doctoral degrees and most recently the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Obama.