Alvin Ailey

Meet Alvin Ailey, choreographer and founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Read more about his history, his influences, and his artistic achievements.

Young Alvin Ailey by Photo courtesy of Alvin's mother, Lula CooperAiley

Early Years

Alvin Ailey was born on January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas. His experiences of life in the rural South—picking cotton with his mother and watching river baptisms at his church while the choir sang spirituals—inspired some of his most memorable dance works.

Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey at Jacobs Pillow (1961) by John LindquistAiley

Alvin Ailey's Introduction to Dance

His dance career began in Los Angeles in 1948, when his friend and muse Carmen de Lavallade introduced him to choreographer Lester Horton and his integrated dance company. They joined the company and later moved to New York in 1954 to perform on Broadway.

First Performance program of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (1958)Ailey

The First Concert

On March 30, 1958, he founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with its first performance in New York City with the ballet Blues Suite, which has stood the test of time and remains one of his most popular works.

Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade in Ailey's Roots of the Blues, Jack Mitchell (©) Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, 1961, From the collection of: Ailey
Blues Suite. Photo by Zoe Dominic. Paris 1964, From the collection of: Ailey
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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey's Revelations (1991/1992) by Jack Mitchell © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. & Smithsonian InstitutionAiley

Creating Dance

When Mr. Ailey began creating dances, he drew upon his "blood memories" of Texas—the blues, spirituals, and gospel as inspiration, which resulted in the creation of his most popular and critically acclaimed work, Revelations.

Alvin Ailey by Normand MaxonAiley

A Lifetime of Distinction

Throughout his lifetime, Mr. Ailey was awarded numerous distinctions, including the Kennedy Center Honors (1988) for contributing to American culture. He posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2014), for his commitment to civil rights and dance in America. 

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

Continuing Alvin Ailey's Legacy

When Mr. Ailey died on December 1, 1989, it was a great loss to the organization and the dance world. He was loved not only for his creative genius but also for his humanity, warmth, and generosity of spirit. His successor, Judith Jamison, protected and expanded upon his legacy.

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