Highlighting Black + LGBT Pioneers: Alvin Ailey

Highlighting Black + LGBT Pioneers

Alvin Ailey was born in 1931 in Rogers, Texas. Barred from mainstream society Ailey began his life in a time of economic crisis (the Great Depression), racism, violence and segregation. His father abandoned his mother when Ailey was only three months old, forcing them to work in cotton fields and as domestics for white families. With the support of a strong family network who provided housing and childcare, Ailey discovered aptitude for foreign language.

His childhood was one defined by trauma which started at age 5 when “he heard a rumor that his mother had been attacked and raped by four white men in the town. None was ever held accountable for this attack. Ailey later attributed his own struggles with self-esteem to the acts of racial violence so prevalent in his formative years in the South.” [1] Sneaking out at night to watch the adults dance, Ailey found refuge and relief in arts and the church.

After becoming acquainted with dance and the Lester Horton Dance Company; Carmen de Lavallade, Harry Belafonte, Katherine Dunham, and Jimmy Truitte, were a few individuals who influenced Ailey to become a dancer and choreographer. He studied a wide range of dance techniques from Native American movements and styles to ballet. Disengaged by the techniques of prominent choreographers, Ailey began to dance, set design and choreograph his own dances and created the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (AAADT). Revelations, Blues Suite and Cry are his most famous ballets.

Always insistent against the stigma that all dancers were gay, Ailey never proclaimed that he was gay and was closeted about romantic affairs with men. Upon the death of Judith Jamison, the most famous AAADT dancer and his successor as artistic director, Ailey went through a dark period of cocaine and alcohol abuse that “contributed to some reckless behavior and revealed the existence of a mental health disorder. This and the stress of funding a dance company, combined with his drug use, caused Ailey to have a nervous breakdown.” [2]

He died from HIV/AIDS complications on December 1st 1989, the year after the first World Aids Day commemoration in 1988. To shield his mother and brother from the stigma and shame of HIV/AIDS, Ailey asked his doctor to announce his cause of death as blood dycrasia.

He lived his passion, pushing the limits imposed on dancers who didn’t fit society’s ideals. His company gained the nickname “Cultural Ambassador to the World” because of it’s international touring schedule. His repertoire is critically acclaimed, and his legacy is revolutionary. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama and the legacy of his creative gift continues to this day.

“He created AAADT and its affiliated Ailey School as havens for nurturing black artists and expressing the universality of the African American experience through dance. His work fused theatre, modern dance, ballet, and jazz with black vernacular, creating hope-fueled choreography that continues to spread global awareness of black life in America.” [3]

Check out Jack Mitchell Photography of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Collection