Most people have heard of the #Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. However, many people do not know the man who was behind it all. #Alvin Ailey was an African-American choreographer and activist who founding the theater. He is often given credit for popularizing modern dance and revolutionizing African-American participation in 20th century concert dance.
Like most African-American children growing up in the early part of the 1900s, Ailey endured racial segregation, violence and lynching against African-Americans. His early experiences in the Southern Baptist church and juke joints instilled a sense of #Black pride that would later lead to his success. Ailey and his mother left the deep-south and moved to Los Angeles, California in 1942. It was in 1949 when Ailey became serious about dance. His school friend Carmen De Lavallade introduced him to the Hollywood studio of Lester Horton. Horton soon became the biggest influence in Ailey’s life.
Ailey began to fall in love with dance. He soon moved to San Francisco after becoming tired of academics. He soon met Marguerite Johnson, who later changed her name to Maya Angelou, and they performed together at a night club with their act called “Al and Rita.” Ailey earned a living waiting tables and dancing at the New Orleans Champagne Supper Club. Eventually, he returned to study dance with Horton in southern California. Ailey began studying full-time at Horton’s school. He joined the company in 1953, and when Horton died the same year the company was left without and artistic director. It was then that Ailey stepped forward and took the role. At the young age of 22, he began choreographing, directing scene and costume designs, and running rehearsal and he also directed one of the shows for the company. Read more.
Ailey formed his own group, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in 1958. The company was soon nicknamed the “Cultural Ambassador to the World” because of their extensive international touring. One of Ailey’s most well-known performances and his masterpiece was “Revelations,” which is also believed to be the best in modern dance performances. Ailey was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1977. He also received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988, just one year before his death. In 2014, President Barack Obama selected Ailey to be a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
According to his bio on biography.com Ailey died at the age of 58 on December 1, 1989, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. At the time, The New York Times reported that he had suffered from “terminal blood dyscrasia, a rare disorder that affects the bone marrow and red blood cells.” It was later revealed that Ailey had died of AIDS.
Ailey still continues to be an important figure in the arts through the ballets he created and the organizations he founded. The dancers with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have performed for millions of people around the world and countless others have seen their work.