Judith Jamison

Meet Judith Jamison—a star dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Mr. Ailey’s successor as Artistic Director, and current Artistic Director Emerita.

Judith Jamison dancing as a young girl in PhiladelphiaAiley

Originally from Philadelphia, Judith Jamison was discovered by Agnes de Mille and made her New York debut with American Ballet Theatre in 1964. She joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater the following year and quickly became an international star.   

Judith Jamison by Jack Mitchell (©) Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian InstitutionAiley

It was October 30, 1965, when the world of dance was forever transformed by Judith Jamison's debut performance with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

The performance took place at the Harper Theater Dance Festival in Chicago, with Ms. Jamison appearing in choreographer Talley Beatty’s Congo Tango Palace, the last section of a longer work (Come and Get the Beauty of it Hot). She commanded the stage in a sizzling, sultry suite of jazz ballets infused with the flavors of Africa and the Caribbean set in an imaginary ballroom in Spanish Harlem. Her legacy was set with that first performance, and she quickly became the Company’s star dancer.

Judith Jamison in Alvin Ailey's Cry (1971) by Jack Mitchell (©) Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian InstitutionAiley

Alvin's Muse

Recognizing her extraordinary talent, Alvin Ailey created iconic roles for Ms. Jamison during her career (1965-1980), most notably the tour de force solo Cry in 1971, created as a birthday gift for his mother and dedicated to “all Black women everywhere, especially our mothers."

"She is wonderfully proud, from the poise of her head set perfectly on a long, strong neck, to the lightly sculptured muscles of her long legs." - Clive Barnes in The New York Times review of the premiere performance of Cry, May 5, 1971.

Judith Jamison in Alvin Ailey's Cry, Jack Mitchell (©) Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, 1971, From the collection of: Ailey
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In 1972, Ms. Jamison won a Dance Magazine Award and was the first Black female artist to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine.

Judith Jamison, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Alvin Ailey prior to the premiere of Pas de Duke, Jack Vartoogian, 1976, From the collection of: Ailey
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In 1976, Alvin Ailey created the exuberant duet Pas de Duke as a showcase for Ms. Jamison, a reigning star of modern dance, and ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, set to the music of Duke Ellington.

Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison (1975) by Jack Mitchell (©) Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian InstitutionAiley

A Legendary Woman


Over her fifteen-year career with AILEY, Judith Jamison broke through racial barriers to become internationally recognized in the dance world.

Alvin Ailey with the Company (1978) by Jack Mitchell (©) Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian InstitutionAiley

After leaving the Company in 1980, Ms. Jamison appeared as a guest artist with ballet companies around the world, starred in the hit Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies, and founded her own company, The Jamison Project.  

Judith Jamison in Broadway's Sophisticated Ladies, From the collection of: Ailey
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The Jamison Project, Mike Ahern, 1990, From the collection of: Ailey
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Artistic Director Judith Jamison and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (1992) by Jack Mitchell (©) Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian InstitutionAiley

Return to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Before his untimely passing in 1989, Alvin Ailey asked Judith Jamison to return to succeed him as Artistic Director, making her one of only a handful of women in the world to direct a major dance company.

In 1999, as one of the most renowned figures in modern dance and a cultural icon, Judith Jamison won a Prime Time Emmy Award for her work on the hour-long PBS Great Performances documentary, “A Hymn for Alvin Ailey.” The same year, she received the 1999 Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Contributions to American Culture through the Performing Arts—the nation’s highest distinction for creative artists.  

Judith Jamison and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's cast of "Hymm" by Nan MelvilleAiley

Leading Ailey into the Future

As Artistic Director, Ms. Jamison took the Company to new heights with historic engagements in South Africa, television specials, and more. She choreographed 10 ballets, commissioned 20 Company premieres, 32 new productions, and 38 world premieres by renowned choreographers.

Ribbon Cutting at the Opening of the Joan Weill Center for Dance by Justin GarlinghouseAiley

A Home for Ailey

It was Ms. Jamison’s dream to have a permanent home for Ailey. In 2005, that became a reality with the opening of The Joan Weill Center for Dance—home to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ailey II, The Ailey School, Ailey Extension, and Arts In Education & Community Programs.

Ailey's 50th Anniversary Launch Event (2008) by Kwame BrathwaiteAiley

In 2008, Judith Jamison led the organization in a 50th-anniversary celebration, featuring a year-long schedule of special performances, projects, and events including a 50-city global tour.

Judith Jamison outside The Joan Weill Center for Dance, Andrew Eccles, 2008, From the collection of: Ailey
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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Barbie, Mattel, 2008, From the collection of: Ailey
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In celebration of the 50th-anniversary acclaimed photographer Andrew Eccles published Ailey Ascending: A Portrait in Motion. Mattel also released the first-ever Barbie doll inspired by a dance company—designed by Judith Jamison, the Barbie features a white lace costume worn in the “Wade in the Water” section of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.

Judith Jamison with the Ailey Company during rehearsal of her tribute to Alvin Ailey, Hymn by Paul KolnikAiley

A Champion of AILEY

Today, Ms. Jamison continues to uphold Mr. Ailey’s mission of sharing dance with everyone and ensuring his ballets are preserved. She continues to serve the Ailey organization as Artistic Director Emerita and her impact on the Company and dance world remains unmatched.

TED Talk: Revelations from a lifetime of dance | Judith Jamison

"Dance can elevate our human experience beyond words," says Judith Jamison in her 2019 TED Talk.

In between performance excerpts of Alvin Ailey's classic works "Revelations" and "Cry," Judith Jamison reflects on the enduring power of dance to transform history into art that thrills audiences around the world. (Dancers: Solomon Dumas, Samantha Figgins, and Constance Stamatiou)

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