Alvin Ailey used the power of dance to empower black people.

Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey was born on January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas City. He founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York in 1958 and best known for popularizing modern dance. He used the power of dance to express and empower black people.

Who Was Alvin Ailey?

Alvin Ailey was an American activist who won fame as a dancer and choreographer. He was known for introducing a popular and multi-racial dance that spread wide across the world.

One of his most famous choreography is The Revelations that gave a detailed study on the religious spirit. In 1988, Ailey received the Kennedy Center Honors and a year later, on December 1, he died of Aids. 

His Early Life

Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade
Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade in 1954.

Ailey, born on January 5, 1931, became a major leading figure and icon in the modern dance of the 20th-century.

Ailey’s mother was a young teenager when she gave birth to him and his father left the family soon after. He grew up in a poor home in Navasota, Texas.

He started getting a lot of inspiration from the native black church he worshipped at. As he grew up listening to the music sung at the local dance hall, it gave him a basic understanding of sound and motion. 

In 1942, Ailey left Texas with his mother for Los Angeles, California. There, his mother began work in an aircraft factory. He became interested in athletics and languages, later joined the football team where he excelled.

Later, he attended the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performance where he was inspired to go into dancing. In 1949, he began to study the area of modern dance with Lester Horton and soon joined his dance company.

His Career 

For a while, Ailey danced in a nightclub in San Francisco, before he returned to the Horton school to complete his dance training. After Horton died, Ailey used his style to choreograph two pieces presented at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts. 

Due to bad reviews, the group broke up. Still, he stayed on track. He was later invited to dance in House of Flowers, a musical based on the book, Truman Capote.

Ailey had his first major piece, Blues Suite, which was inspired by blues music. He received a lot of praise for it. This led him to schedule a second concert for his works. The third concert featured his famous piece, The Revelations.

The Alvin American Dance Theater

In 1959, Ailey established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which included a group of eight black dancers. This was dedicated to enrich the American modern dance heritage and preserve the specialty of the African-American cultural experience. 

Members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre rehearse a scene in a dance called Revelations. Public Domain

Mr. Alvin was awarded several honors, including the Kennedy Center Honor in 1988. This was in recognition of his beautiful contribution to American culture.

In 2014, he received an award for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor of the country. All was in recognition of his efforts and commitment to civil rights and dance in America.

His Death

In 1980, Ailey Alvin suffered an illness that put him in the hospital for several weeks. He also lost a dear friend and experienced a lot of financial issues. Yet, his reputation as a founding father of modern dance grew more.

On the 1st of December, 1989, Mr. Alvin died of a blood disorder. A lot of people gathered for his memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Till today, Ailey remains an important figure in the arts through organizations and ballets he created. 

Key facts

  • Ailey got his start with one of the first interracial companies, Lester Horton Dance Theater.
  • In 1958, Alvin Ailey trained under dance greats such as Katherine Dunham and Lester Horton.
  • Alvin Ailey choreographed his signature solo, Cry, as a birthday present for his dignified mother.
  • Ailey’s Revelations was inspired by his experience growing up in the South and focus on his black cultural identity.
  • In 1972, Alvin Ailey received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from Princeton University.
  • Ailey choreographed around 80 ballets.
  • Alvin Ailey Dance Theater has performed for more than 20 million people around the world.
  • The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater performed at the White House in 1968 for President Johnson.
  • He preferred to be known as a choreographer, but some called him the “black choreographer” which he didn’t like.
  • Ailey suffered from bipolar disorder.
  • Ailey formed a nightclub act called “Al and Rita” with Maya Angelou while living in San Francisco.

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