Alvin Ailey Jr. was an African American modern dancer and choreographer and the founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. He founded The American Dance Theater in 1958 featuring African American dances. The company was integrated in 1963. He died in 1989 of Aids at the age of 58.
Early Life: Alvin Ailey Jr. was born January 5, 1931 in Rogers Texas. His Father, Alvin Ailey Sr., left home when he was only 3 months old and his mother picked cotton and did housework in white homes. He felt his mother drank too much and left him with strangers when he was a child. He reported feeling lonely and misunderstood. His family moved to Los Angeles and his mother remarried in 1945 when he was a teen. Around this time, he saw Katherine Dunham perform African-and Caribbean-inspired dances and was moved to the point where he began visiting the dance studio of Lester Horton. He became the director of the company after Horton’s death.
Hardships: Growing up in the south in the 1930’s was especially hard on this sensitive child. The cruelties and constant dangers of segregation were especially hard. When his mother was raped by a white man when he was only five, all he could do was wipe her tears. Early in his career, he felt racism kept him and other blacks from joining established dance companies. Throughout his life, Alvin Ailey felt tortured due to having to be secretive about his homosexuality and felt that racism circumscribed his life. Later in life, he became unstable and was prone to rages, and became dependent on drugs and alcohol.
Interesting facts: Alvin Ailey performed in musical comedies, and dramatic shows in film and on television.
Alvin Ailey’s choreography was designed to have a wide appeal and combined ballet, modern dance, jazz, primitive dance, and contemporary dance.
Career Accomplishments: In 1958, Alvin Ailey formed his own company in New York after realizing racism prevented him from being accepted into an established company. At the age of 29, Alvin Ailey choreographed “Revelations”, which was set to spirituals and is one of the most performed ballets of the 20th century. He created more than 100 dances, some of which became very popular.
Through is dance theatre, Alvin Ailey popularized modern dance throughout the world. His international tours were sponsored by the U.S. State Department. After his death, the American Dance Theatre was renamed to bear Alvin Ailey’s name. Alvin Ailey received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988.
What does Alvin Ailey’s story teach us?
Where there was no outlet for Alvin Ailey to perform due to what he perceived as racism, he created his own. Not only did he start his own dance company, but also he became renowned worldwide. His story also teaches us that being forced to live in such a secretive nature can be damaging on the psyche.