Currently, a troupe of America’s finest dancers are touring stages across the country, united by a vision that long precedes their pirouettes. This vision is affectionately known as the “Cultural Ambassador to the World,” or the late dancer Alvin Ailey’s eponymous, storied dance company. Now in its 60th year, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater brought color to the concert dance community at a time when “representation” was more of a distant buzzword. Ailey, a Black choreographer and activist from the segregated south, founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 and the Ailey School in 1969 in New York City, and immediately made space for the marginalized. Not only did he popularize modern dance, but he did so with Black performers at the center. Six decades later, what Langston Hughes called “a dream deferred” in his canonical poem Harlem is now Ailey’s dream realized.
Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas and moved to Los Angeles at age 11, according to the Los Angeles Sentinel. Over the years, his interest in the performing arts grew; as a student at Thomas Jefferson High School in South LA, he sang spirituals in the glee club — a nod to his Southern Baptist roots (which, LA Dance Chronicle reports, is suspected to have contributed greatly to his sense of Black pride). However, it wasn’t until 1949 that he officially fell in love with dance when, thanks to the urging of his classmate Carmen De Lavallade (a celebrated dancer and choreographer in her own right), he began studying the art form at Lester Horton’s famed Hollywood dance studio. Despite the obvious threats of racial tensions and stigmas against the gay community in the mid-20th century, Ailey was able to establish a premier modern dance company that not only captivated audiences during his lifetime, but one that carries his vision through even today.
I remember seeing a show put on by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as a child in my hometown of Los Angeles, totally enamored by the honey-colored lights shining down on us — a fitting backdrop for the spectrum of browns that spilled out across the stage from wing to wing. The dancers, majestic and free, felt like a representation of what was often hidden from view; during that performance, Black history became a glowing narrative of our forward movement, rather than the pain of our forced displacement.
Now, 60 years later, the Ailey company continues to tour worldwide. In the U.S., the organization has educational programming in 10 different cities, focusing on bringing dance to underserved kids. At Ailey, the emphasis has always been on finding joy in our collective humanity. Four dancers, all of them Black women, share their experiences as members of a community whose founder treated both their movements and their voices as essential from the very beginning.
What Black Joy Means To Ailey And Its Audience
Given the global reputation of Ailey’s company, it goes without saying that audiences, made up of people from all over, still connect with his work beyond his lifetime (Ailey died of complications from HIV/AIDS in 1989). Though the African-American experience has always been the nucleus of Ailey’s storytelling, all sorts of spectators have found something to relate to when they watch these dancers perform‚ 60 years and several countries after its 1958 founding. Dance is often described as being a universal language, and Ailey’s impact only proves this further.
Sylvia Waters, a dance world legend, began her career as a performer and later transitioned into being the artistic director of the Ailey Repertory Ensemble, now known as Ailey II. She says she was personally selected for this role by Ailey himself in 1974, which resulted in a 38 year tenure executing his vision and creating her own. “It’s been an incredible education to explore myself to share this artistry with so many people,” Waters tells Bustle. She spent a great deal of her career watching her vision in conversation with cultures near and far; having people understand what the dances were intended to communicate, she says, is “an incredible experience.”
When Waters first became involved with Ailey’s company, it was much smaller, so the bond he had with each dancer was quite intimate. To Waters, this “felt like home,” and allowed her to see the very beginnings of Ailey’s work as a choreographer and the birth of his eclectic taste. Because of his omnivorous appetite for dance, anyone could find themselves in his work, whether they were on stage performing it, or a member of the audience. “The Ailey company was always involved with the expression of the African-American experience as much as the modern dance tradition,” Waters says. This combination of two distinct yet harmonious perspectives allowed the audiences who came to the shows to be wide-ranging. “[E]ven [in] his most abstract ballets, there’s a sense of humanity, there’s something felt — a sense of love,” Waters notes. “That self-expression, that exchange from one human being to another, reaches across the theater to these audiences, and they feel that.”
Dance is a unique form of communication; when it is made accessible to the masses (the art form is historically, and intentionally, elitist), it can truly be a vehicle for a shared experience.
To Courtney Celeste Spears, a current dancer in the company, the aspect of Ailey’s work that resonates most with audiences is love and the importance of a journey. “One thing Mr. Ailey was really big about was that he wanted to see people on stage,” she tells Bustle. “Of course we’re trained and we are dancers but there’s a lot of opportunity on stage to just be human.” Ailey always emphasized the importance of diving into the pure emotion and joy of the moment. “That can hit anybody and any point in the world, even if we don’t speak the same language,” she says. “You can feel [something] from whatever story that a dancer is trying to tell, whether that be happiness, joy, and excitement, versus grief and sorrow and pain or love,” Spears says.
Dance is a unique form of communication; when it is made accessible to the masses (the art form is historically, and intentionally, elitist), it can truly be a vehicle for a shared experience. “Mr. Ailey always said it came from the people, it needs to go back to the people,” Spears says. “What I love is that I don’t feel like you need this huge eclectic dance palette [for our shows]. You can just come.”
What It Was Like To Become Part Of History
When Spears joined the company in May of 2018, she remembers the day being surreal. “It was a blur until I sat down and had time to process [it],” she says. “I had so much adrenaline and excitement and joy and happiness all in one moment.” Spears had auditioned for the company three times prior to this acceptance, but it wasn’t until that spring day that she fully understood the magnitude of what being a member of the company meant. “I recently just saw my photo on the big wall where all of our pictures are, and I just stood in front of it for 10 minutes like, ‘Wow… Okay, they let me in here.’ ” Spears was first introduced to the company through her enrollment in the joint Ailey-Fordham BFA program, and she later danced as a part of Ailey II, the junior dance company. The organization has been a part of her life since she was 17. Now, as one of the newer members of the adult company, Spears is empowered by the dancers who have come before her. “What’s in front of me every single day in that studio is just magic and hard work,” she says. “It’s powerful.”
At a time when most dance companies singularly performed the work of the founder, Ailey made it a point to invite choreographers to work with his dancers, thus exposing them to a variety of dance styles. This blend of techniques, from classical ballet, to jazz, to hip-hop, created performances as diverse and broad as the Black diaspora. And though Ailey, as a gay, Black man, primarily sought to create new opportunities for the historically marginalized by giving them a platform, his company valued talent above all else, as evidenced by the diversity of dancers he had represented on stage. After all, he was once quoted as saying: “I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings and that color is not important. What is important is the quality of our work.”
Spears, who formerly trained at the American Ballet Theatre (where Misty Copeland made history as the company's first Black principal ballerina), says she was honored to dance in the traditional style there, but fell in love with the Ailey company because it allowed her to dance all different styles. “For me, that was the aha! moment, because not only did the dancers look like me and they were beautiful and portrayed as beautiful, but they were also doing all those same styles. They had on ballet shoes, then they were barefoot and doing modern, and then they were in tennis shoes and doing hip hop, and then they were in heels doing a more jazzy [style],” she says. “There’s not a lot of companies that would have such a diverse repertory, where within one performance you need to have your heels, your ballet slippers, and your tennis shoes ready to go in one night.”
How Performing Contributed To These Dancers' Sense Of Identity
It is a widely acknowledged idea that Black women, who face the two-fold impact of racism and sexism daily, often have to be doubly impressive than their competition to achieve the same opportunities. Because of this, victorious moments, like getting accepted into a legendary dance company, mean that much more. “Black Girl Magic” is a phrase that has an uplifting origin, but runs the risk of minimizing the hard work Black women put in to achieve the dazzling opportunities they deserve. Getting chosen to dance with a company like Ailey isn’t a “poof” moment or a stroke of good luck. Instead, it comes from years of dedication, despite all odds. The Ailey company, an organization that has always centered the beauty of Black womanhood, has impacted these dancers’ confidence in both tangible and intangible ways.
Constance Stamatiou, a dancer who officially joined the company in 2007, moved to New York City in 2002 in hopes to one day join the Ailey company. “I think for the longest time I grew up, as I’m sure as many adolescents do, not as sure of yourself, or who you are, how you feel about yourself, not as confident,” Stamatiou tells Bustle. “Especially with dancing, you can be hard on yourself, you want to be perfect ... but that’s just not going to happen, so the hope is that you try harder each day.” Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, Stamatiou says she was often the sole “token Black girl” in her dance classes, but now that she’s in a company full of people that look like her, she takes pride in the fact that a young dancer may see her on stage and smile, knowing their dream may be within reach, too. “I’m seeing a community of people who look like me in the spotlight and that warms my heart and that shows me — and I’m sure younger girls and boys — that we can do the same, that we are just as bright, just as talented, just as gifted as anyone else,” she says.
Spears agrees that dance can be incredibly impactful on young women. “I always thought of myself to be a very awkward kid in class,” she says. “I wasn’t the coolest, but I could dance. So when I got to my dance classes and when I got into the studio, that was my territory. I didn’t care if I wasn’t the coolest girl in school because when I got into dance class, it was about me. It was my time.” For Spears, dancing shaped her identity early on by teaching her discipline, work ethic, and time management. Having an artistic outlet taught her how to remain in touch with her feelings, while also the structure required to be successful in any career.
Ailey's Impact Beyond The Stage
Ailey’s extended programs seek to make that transformative experience accessible to those outside of the professional dance world. Nasha Thomas, the director of Ailey’s Arts In Education programs and the National Director of AileyCamp, first joined the company as a dancer in January 1986. After 12 years on stage, she transitioned into her current role at AileyCamp, a free summer camp for underserved youth in 10 cities across the country, which is the last program Alvin Ailey implemented before his death. “Mr. Ailey started the company as entertainment,” Thomas tells Bustle. “But then, through performing, he began to educate. It was very important for him to be a part of the community and for communities to connect with his company, through discussions and lectures and classes and just getting out and meeting people and bringing people in a company to be accepted.”
The foundation of the camp is professional development, and showing how themes like commitment, conflict, and mental and physical health can all be taught through dance. “A lot of our young people that are in our program don't have the support from home,” Thomas says. “So we make sure that they know that they have support in different areas in their community, whether it's in their school or in their church, a guidance counselor or a family member or personal friends. It really is about being citizens of the world.”
New York City is the Ailey organization’s home base, but the Ailey company performs in most of the other nine cities annually, making them natural destinations for the camps’ community outreach. The purpose of these camps is to offer youth the space to express themselves and build confidence. In an age where media depictions of the Black community can often be problematic, these viral videos and images can be damaging to young Black kids' sense of selfhood. Often times, narratives surrounding Black children is that they are difficult or dangerous, but AileyCamps give them the opportunity to shape their own identities, free from the labels society have already assigned to them. Through AileyCamps, they are afforded the opportunity to be inspired by role models in the form of Black dancers who have come before them.
Being able to pass dance down to the next generation “makes me realize that I have a commitment to the young people that I'm working with to share what I was given, what I was privileged to know,” Thomas says. “Anything they want to become, they have an opportunity to make it happen and make it a reality.” In true poetic form, dance becomes an analog for forward movement — Thomas uses dance as a tool to inspire progress in the campers, while improving their relationship to their changing bodies and their community along the way. “Giving the students the opportunity to speak and to share how they feel and to ask questions and to know that their thoughts and their feelings are valid [is] ... one of the important things in our arts education programs and our AileyCamp. It really is about the support.”
Stamatiou’s daughter and son are both dancers at the Ailey school, another branch of the company’s education mission. Their excitement over learning the choreography that she performs, night after night, is rewarding because, she says, “it’s validation that I’m doing something right. I may not always be sure about everything or the decisions or how to parent, but at least I’m seeing some kind of positive reinforcement. I’m teaching them that no matter what it is they dream or hope to become, it can actually become a reality,” she says.
What It Feels Like To Continue The Legacy
Unsurprisingly, being a member of a dance company that defeated all odds and is now in its 60th year, is a source of Black joy in and of itself. Resting on the shoulders of older women in the company has been both a source of pride and humility for the younger dancers. “I’m sure a lot of people say this, but I feel like I have a connection with him, because he was raised in the south,” Stamatiou says. “I’m from the South … and I also grew up in the Baptist church, so I feel like the things that I see in Revelations [a famous Ailey choreography], I also saw at my church, and hearing some of those hymnals I also heard at my church. It’s just amazing to ... keep this man’s vision going on still to this day,” she says.
Did he know his dream of putting together a company that celebrates the shared humanity of people and the uniqueness of the Black experience would make it this far? It’s hard to say. But joy doesn’t solely exist in the achievement; it lives in the journey, too.
“[Ailey] said he wanted to show the beauty of African-American people in the arts and dancing and on stage,” Thomas says. “And it's important for our young people to have role models who look like them, who come from similar backgrounds.” Thomas credits the long-lasting vitality of the company to Ailey’s commitment to excellence. The joy that comes from telling one’s own story, particularly at a high level, has always been and continues to be a source of pride for the company’s dancers.
“Mr. Ailey had a very very big vision, he had a very, very broad panoramic idea of what he wanted as a whole group of dancers, of what dance was, and [what] a dancer’s education [was],” Waters says. “He always felt that a dance company needed a home and a school, so he had these ideas very early on, and to see that come to fruition even beyond what he might have expected, is just quite extraordinary.”
And How Ailey's Vision Contributes To A Futurity Of Blackness
When Ailey first conceived of his American dance theatre 60 years ago, the world was a different place. Today, his company is the largest modern dance company in the world. Did he know his dream of putting together a company that celebrates the shared humanity of people and the uniqueness of the Black experience would make it this far? It’s hard to say. But joy doesn’t solely exist in the achievement; it lives in the journey, too.
As a respected elder in the company, I ask Ms. Waters what the future of Blackness looks like to her, given the history we’ve had as a people in this country. “I do feel that as a people and as a culture we’re here to stay, we’re not going anywhere,” she says. “We are part of the future, a very important part of the future. It’s not easy, it’s not going to be easy, [but] I do believe it’s going to be better.”
For Spears, knowing the history of this progress has taught her about finding joy in her Blackness. “If there aren’t opportunities there for you for whatever reason, then you create them,” she says. “Then we continue to create and bring all of us together in as many ways as we can because I think we’re so much more powerful in numbers. I can’t imagine what it looks like for audiences to see over 30 people of color just together, in love, celebrating.” She says she is touched by the power of how Ailey’s vision has come into fruition, and takes pride in continuing to honor it. “[Ailey] is not just a company, but an empire … that all started from ‘I don’t see this for my people and I need to make it’. [T]hat was his initiative and look where it brought us,” she adds.
There’s a certain rhythm to resistance. This is something most, if not all Black people inherently feel, but rarely verbalize. Words hold power, to be sure, but there’s something redundant — maddening, even —about discussing the injustices our ancestors faced over and over again. (Especially when those injustices look frighteningly similar in 2019 as they did in 1955 or 1991). Movement has always been a tool of defiance; consider the many feet that marched for freedom from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. But stillness, or a lack of movement, has historically been just as poignant. There is power in choosing to sit in the front of a bus, firm and empowered, rather than be moved by the fear of invented, race-motivated rules.
While music plays its own role in Black history — and Blackness in the present day, too — the movement that accompanies it has always been a wordless expression of our most unspeakable joys and sorrows. For a community that has been silenced through centuries of targeted oppression, dance has been used as a tool to alchemize that silence into pride. Bodies, Black and beaming, say more in the way their hips switch, feet tap, arms sway, than some words ever could. And this is something that Alvin Ailey understood wholly.
Correction: This piece was updated on Feb. 26 to clarify the year in which the Ailey School was founded, Sylvia Waters' role within the organization, and AileyCamp's programming.