20th Century Dancers: Alvin Ailey
Alvin Ailey, an American-born dance choreographer, is credited for much more than his innate talent when it comes to dance and performance. He is also known for his contribution to the promotion of other cultures within dance theatre, particularly the African culture. Not only did he succeed in popularizing modern dance on a much larger scale than it previously had been, but he also integrated African dance traditions and music, which brought an element of global character to the modern dance world. Ailey’s dance company was arguably his greatest success, as he surpassed his lifelong goal, which was to give African American choreographers and dancers a place in which they could showcase their work (Gitenstein, 2006, p. 4). Through his revolutionary choreography and worldwide dance tours, Ailey spread awareness of a new form of modern dance—a style that combined American-based dance tradition with African culture.
On January 5, 1931, Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas. His family lived in a small household that was home to thirteen people, including his father Alvin Ailey Sr. and his mother Lula (Gitenstein, 2006, p. 8). Being born during the first few years of the Great Depression, his family had very limited financial means. While most parents celebrate the birth of a child, Ailey was simply another mouth to feed and another child to clothe; and for an already poor family living under one cramped roof, this meant that their money would have to stretch even further. His father was already struggling to find work at the time of his birth, and therefore left the family when he was only six months of age (Gitenstein, 2006, p. 8). Ailey and his father only saw each other a few times afterwards, and his mother became the stronghold in his life. Lula moved him into a small cabin and worked various jobs—whatever she could possibly find—in order to provide for her family. If there were no jobs available, she would simply pack him up and move to another town where she could potentially earn money. During the 1930s, economic crisis and extreme poverty were not the only negative aspects plaguing the nation. It was also a time of racial segregation. Ailey experienced racism firsthand, as “…he and his friends were forced to sit upstairs when they went to the movies while the white children enjoyed better seats downstairs. It also meant that the elementary school that he and other African American students attended had old textbooks and almost no supplies…”, while white children were given better quality classrooms and materials (Gitenstein, 2006, p. 7). This would later influence Ailey’s dance career as well as his role as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement.
At the age of twelve, he moved to Los Angeles, California. The school he attended “…offered Ailey vibrant models of African American performance in the integrationist mold prevalent during the Second World War” and he was able to see legends such as Billie Holiday and Lena Horne in concert (DeFrantz, 2004, p. 27). This exposure, perhaps, is what spared his interest in the role of African Americans in terms of performing arts. It was also there in Los Angeles, that he found his passion for dance during a trip to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in middle school (Ballet Theatre Foundation, Inc., 2007). He was immediately inspired by the works and performances of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, and soon began his own formal dance training with Lester Horton (Ballet Theatre Foundation, Inc., 2007). Horton played a key role in Ailey’s future career, because he founded the country’s first dance company that integrated both black and white dancers. This provided him with an equal platform, where he was able to study dance without worrying about racial segregation and unfair treatment. African Americans were not the only minority group attempting to gain status and break free of the strict constraints of the dance world. Throughout the 1930s, modern dance had begun to become more popular due to its representation of new ideas and a more progressive approach to society. White women, for example, used modern dance in order to break free of female stereotypes, and gay white men attempted to promote a greater acceptance of variation in gender and sexuality. African Americans, however, did not necessarily seek to demonstrate American influences within their dance. Foulkes (2002) discusses that modern dance had on the black community:
For African American dancers, culture and nation overlapped but did not necessarily
coincide in their dances. While they fought for and pushed Americans to realize ideals of equality of opportunity and open democracy, they embraced the culture of Africa and the Caribbean to white they felt they more truly belonged. (p. 177)
It was these ideals that Ailey implemented when he opened his own dance company in 1958—The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Throughout his entire career, his personal experiences influenced his own unique approach to dance and what his main priorities were in terms of what his productions represented.
Ailey’s career started off in New York, where he performed on Broadway, television, and even nightclubs. After a few years of performing in classic American roles for minimal paychecks, he grew tired of what was accepted in terms of dance performance and longed deviate from what standardized norms. His desire to focus more on African culture rather than become part of the white modern dance scene stems from his childhood and the racial-based trauma he had lived through. DeFrantz (2004) summarizes an interview with Ailey, during which he tells the story of being a black child during the 1930s: “Among [his memories] loomed Ailey’s shadowy memory of his mother’s rape by a white man when he was five. Like many African Americans of his generation, Ailey came to understand black life as the result of political domination by anonymous bands of whites” (p. 27). He realized that American society was being given a misrepresented and misinterpreted version of African culture—that politics and ignorant social views were strong enough to affect how an entire population of people was treated based on the color of their skin. Ailey certainly developed an intense pride in his own culture and heritage, as he made it his mission to open up his own dance company that was based on African tradition. His mission became a reality in 1958, when his own dance theatre opened. This represented Ailey’s personal vision of “…creating a company dedicated to the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage and the uniqueness of black cultural expression” (Ballet Theatre Foundation, Inc., 2007). His company today states that it “…plays a crucial social role using the beauty and humanity of the African American heritage and other cultures to unite people of all races, ages and backgrounds” (Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc., 2010). Considering his experiences with racism ever since he was a child, it is clear why he would feel the need to open a dance venue that would serve everyone regardless of their ethnic background. By studying modern dance in a predominantly white setting, it was also evident to him that there was a major shortage of African culture being represented within the performing arts—that is, there was none. Listening to some of the world’s most infamous jazz singers in person, who were black, showed Ailey that the African American population had a great amount of talent and culture to offer the dance community, just as they had influenced the music world. The fact that African American dance traditions were not being shown onstage for mass audiences, therefore, was unacceptable; and it is the combination of his experiences and the limited offerings of the dance industry that inspired him to change modern dance.
Throughout his career, Ailey choreographed nearly one hundred dances. His pieces have been performed by numerous dance companies, such as the Joffrey Ballet, the American Ballet, The Paris Opera Ballet, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. One of his most famous productions is Revelations, which was created in 1960. This dance is said to be “…the classic masterpiece of American modern dance based on the religious heritage of his youth” (Ballet Theatre Foundation, Inc.). In one of the scenes called Wade in the Water, the dancers—all African American—are dressed in white garments (YouTube, 2007). The full-length of the women’s dresses is similar in style to the dresses that were worn by women in the South during the slavery years. The use of white for the costumes, however, gives the dancers an aura of purity and innocence. The dancers are also holding props such as an umbrella and white poles, which is common in modern dance. Many of their dance moves demonstrate the technicality that ballet uses, but their arm movements and use of levels is much more consistent with African traditions. By choreographing this dance to Wade in the Water, it is clear that Ailey’s purpose was to represent the spirituals and the messages of hope that African Americans sang even though they were enslaved. It is a clear celebration of black pride and strength, which is illustrated through the use of combination of American modern dance and traditional African movements. In a review of Ailey Theatre performances, Dance Magazine states that the female dancers are “…gorgeous, sexy, and tough as nails—amazons with attitude… They leave vulnerability to the men… In the Ailey company, only men have the freedom to explore their feminine side. The women, by contrast, have to be superwomen” (Garafola, 2003, p. 75). This coincides with Ailey’s past, as his mother was the strongest member of his family and demonstrated a great amount of courage; and this is yet another example of how his past affected his career and what he wished to tell others through his choreography.
When Alvin Ailey died in 1989, his had surpassed his own goals. Not only did he create a dance company that preserved and celebrated African culture, but he made African dance accessible to a mass audience. His contributions to dance involve the fusion of African traditions and modern dance. Through his work, he demonstrated how cultural differences added color and dimension to the world of dance.
Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. (2010). Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Retrieved from http://www.alvinailey.org/
Ballet Theatre Foundation, Inc. (2007). Alvin Ailey. Retrieved from http://www.abt.org/ education/archive/choreographers/ailey_a.html
DeFrantz, T.F. (2004). Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Foulkes, J.L. (2002). Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Garafola, L. (2003). Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Dance Magazine, 77(4), 71-74.
Gitenstein, J. (2006). Alvin Ailey. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.
Juwar74. (2007, November 25). Alvin Ailey Dance: Wade in the Water from “Revelations” [Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9uEq9Sjefg&feature= related