Alvin Ailey
Alvin Ailey

Dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey founded the world famous Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. He was born January 5, 1931, in the Central Texas town of Rogers, in Bell County. He died in New York December 1, 1989, of blood dyscrasia.

Alvin was the only child of his 17-year-old mother, Lula. His father abandoned them when Alvin was six months old. Mother and son moved to Navasota, eventually settling in Los Angeles. To get buy, they picked cotton and did domestic work.

Ailey showed an early interest in art, drawing pictures during much of his childhood. He discovered dance while on a junior high school field trip to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Eventually, he took dance classes from choreographer Katherine Dunham. But his most important influence would come from choreographer Lester Horton, who taught dance in Los Angeles.

Horton's troupe was racially mixed and included American Indian and Japanese influences. Ailey began studying with Horton in 1949, leaving behind his romance language studies at UCLA. In 1953, the year Ailey made his performance debut, Horton died and Ailey took over the company.

His Broadway debut came the next year in Truman Capote's House of Flowers. Staying in New York after the play closed, Ailey studied ballet, modern dance and acting. One of his teachers was choreographer Martha Graham. Over the next ten years, Ailey appeared on and off Broadway and on film as a dancer, choreographer, actor, and director. He choreographed Leonard Bernstein's Mass, which was the debut performance of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Samuel Barber's opera, Antony and Cleopatra, which was the inaugural production of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Theater.

Ailey's choreography for Blues Suite (1958), his first financial and critical success,  marked the beginning of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. World fame quickly followed which meant not needing any small business loans for his company. In 1965, Ailey left dancing to concentrate on choreography and running his company. The group was the resident company of the Brooklyn Academy of Music for three seasons starting in 1969. It became the first American dance company to tour the USSR in fifty years. The Leningrad performance in 1970 received an ovation lasting more than twenty minutes.

Two years later, Ailey headquartered his dance school and repertory ensemble at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. The company's honors include the Dance Magazine Award, 1975; The Capezio Award, 1979; the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, 1987; and Kennedy Center Honors, 1988.

Alvin Ailey received honorary doctorates from Princeton University, Bard College, and Adelphi University. In 1979, he was awarded the Spingarin Medal of the NAACP. He racially integrated his formerly all-black dance company in 1963 after encountering reverse racism.

Bibliography: Ron Tyler, ed., The New Handbook of Texas, Vol. 1 (Austin, Texas: Texas State Historical Association, 1996) pp. 74-75.