Thursday, January 5, 2012

Born On This Day- January 5th... Alvin Ailey

I am always grateful to my college boyfriend & longtime buddy- Walter for giving me an education in Dance History. He is a professional dancer, dancing with the famed Bella Lewitzki Dance Company for decades, & now a professor of Dance at the University of Oregon. Because of our relationship, I am more savvy about dance than most civilians.

Today’s Birthday Gay is Modern dance pioneer Alvin Ailey, recognized for his lasting impact on the American arts landscape, which he achieved despite struggles racial discrimination, mental illness & internal conflict about his sexuality.

On this day in 1931, Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas. Apprehensive & artistic, he was uncomfortably aware of his attraction to other boys at an early age, but his strapping physique spared him from harassment.

Moving to LA at 12 years old, Ailey developed a love for dance after seeing a performance by dancer/activist- Katherine Dunham. He met & began studying with Lester Horton, who created the first racially integrated dance company in the USA.

He transferred to San Francisco State College to study teaching, but Ailey continued to dance, performing at a nightclub with Maya Angelou, at the time, a dancer. Eventually, he chose to leave school, & join Horton’s troupe.

After Horton’s death in 1953, Ailey was named director of the company. A year later, he relocated to NYC. He studied with dance masters, including Martha Graham & Merce Cunningham. His work was well-received, but jobs for black dancers were scarce.

To offer more opportunities for black talent, Ailey started his own company- The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), which made its debut in 1958. In 1962, the US State Department began sponsoring AAADT on international tours. Ailey integrated the company in 1963, saying he wanted to work with the most talented dancers regardless of race. Even as Ailey continued to develop pieces for AAADT, he mentored several promising young performers, including the powerful Judith Jamison, who succeeded Ailey as AAADT artistic director.

Despite his professional success, Ailey’s personal life was driven by difficulties. His sexuality was an open secret, yet he rarely spoke of his personal relationships, & seemed ill at ease with being gay. He was in a long term romantic relationship with a young white schoolteacher who helped manage his dance company. Ailey spent his time socializing in gay bars. He had numerous short-term liaisons with young men who his friends felt took advantage of his generosity. He suffered from bipolar disorder, which worsened over time, as did his drinking & drug use.

In his 50s, by the time the AIDS crisis struck NYC, Ailey was infected with HIV. Though increasingly ill, he continued traveling to oversee productions & receive awards. He died in 1989 from AIDS-related complications.

In Ailey’s memory, a stretch of West 61st Street was renamed “Alvin Ailey Way.” But his greatest legacy is AAADT, which has performed for more than 20 million people in some 70 countries.

Choreography by the man himself...


  1. His Legacy is an American Treasure

  2. Whenever the Ailey company came to Boston, I always went. I was fortunate enough to see Judith Jamison three times in Cry -- the first time I saw it I honestly couldn't believe what I was seeing. The programs very frequently ended with Revelations, one of the most joyous dances ever choreographed.


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