Alvin Ailey (January 5, 1931 – December 1, 1989) was an African-American choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. He is credited with popularizing modern dance and revolutionizing African-American participation in 20th-century concert dance.

The Man

Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas, in 1931. He and his mother moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1942 where in 1949 he entered the Lester Horton Dance Studio. Ailey assumed the role of artistic director at the Horton Dance Studio following Horton’s death in 1953.

Alvin Ailey left us with 80 original choreographed works, many focusing on African American cultural and artistic themes.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was founded in 1958. The company still exists and continues the tradition of eclecticism that was Ailey's hallmark.

During Ailey’s lifetime, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater traveled throughout the United States and around the world, including government sponsored trips to East Asia in 1962, Russia in 1970, and the People’s Republic of China in 1985.

After three decades in the dance world, Ailey died of AIDS in 1989. aged 58.

The Dancers

The company was noted for its inclusion of dancers of many different races and backgrounds. Ailey felt very strongly that dance should be for all people.

Judith Jamison was one of the Theater's most celebrated dancers in the 1960s and 70s. Following Ailey's death in 1989 she served as the Artistic Director of the company for more than two decades.

Dudley Williams had an astonishing career at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, where he danced from 1963 to 2005. He passed away in June of 2015 at age 76.

Keith McDaniel was one of Alvin Ailey's favorite dancers to choreograph for during his tenure at the Theater in the 1970s and 80s. McDaniel later passed away at age 38.

The Performances

"Revelations" (pictured here) is perhaps Ailey's most significant work. It was first produced in 1960, and features dance accompanied by gospel, spirituals and blues music.

"Fanga" is a performance choreographed by anthropologist Pearl Primus and serves as an interpretation of a traditional Liberian invocation to the earth and sky.

"The Lark Ascending" is inspired by the movement of birds, and is accompanied by a 1920 composition by Vaughan Williams.

"The Lark Ascending"

Ailey's creation, "Cry" was a stunning solo piece, famously danced by Judith Jamison. He dedicated the piece "to all black women everywhere, especially our mothers."


"The Road of Phoebe Snow" depicts activity on the fictional train "The Phoebe Snow" traveling down the Lackawanna Railroad line.

Ailey choreographed "Night Creature" to the Duke Ellington composition of the same name. It remains one of the most popular Ailey performances to this day.

"Three Black Kings was another 1974 collaboration with Duke Ellington, which the great composer wrote from his deathbed.

"Night Creature"

Alvin Ailey's Legacy

Alvin Ailey left an indelible mark on the landscape of modern dance, both with his choreography and the ongoing work of his dance company.

His combination of classical and modern styles, coupled with his use of diverse dancers brought dance to entirely new audiences and continues to do so to this day.

Credits: Story

From the collection of The Black Archives of Mid-America, mostly the Allan Gray Family Personal Papers of Alvin Ailey, on extended loan from Mr. Gray.

The Kansas City Public Library contributed technical oversight and metadata for this exhibit.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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