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Alvin Ailey's Influence on Modern Dance

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Alvin Ailey's Influence on Modern Dance

Alvin Ailey never considered dancing as his career. He had always been enthralled by the lights, costumes, and dancers flowing with the music, but it never occurred to him that he would be creating such spectacles. He went to see many shows when he was younger, mostly ballet and musical theater. Acceptance for modern dance had not yet been established during the 1940's, when Ailey was in his childhood, and he would become one of its most major influences. Alvin Ailey helped modern dance become accepted by bringing his roots into his dances, opening his own studio, and giving African Americans equal opportunities.

Ailey grew up drifting all over Texas with his mother (Ford 73-74). He could never forget the joyful music he had always heard in church as a young boy (Probosz 13). The songs Ailey heard in church were always sung in rejoice, despite the hard times and lack of respect for African Americans.Ð' Revelations, Ailey's first major work, would incorporate all the emotions of the gospel and spiritual songs of his life (Probosz 32). Just as classic ballets tell a story, his modern ballets would tell the story of African American life. Each song in the series reminded him of a different part of his background, whether it be people singing in the streets, his mother humming tunes around the house, or songs he would sing with his high school glee club (Ailey 101). The songs represented a truth that Ailey wanted to project about the black image (Ailey 101). He wanted his audiences to feel that same truth, and respect it, when they saw his memories performed to the black rhythm (Ailey 101). The dancing techniques used in Revelations and all other Ailey works, were influenced by Ailey's mentor and friend, Lester Horton (Lewis-Ferguson 13). Horton always told his students that they must "communicate well through movement, that they have the strength and endurance, and that they use the full range of space, tempo, rhythm, and emotions available to them" (Lewis-Ferguson 13).

By combining all of these elements and pairing them with African American soul music, Alvin Ailey used his dance company to impress upon an audience the passion of a southern black community.

When Ailey first discovered his love for choreography, he decided to find a dance group and show off his work at the Young Men's Hebrew Association on 92nd street in New York City , where young choreographers put on concerts (Lewis-Ferguson 23-24). His first piece was called Blues Suite, a dance based on a risque hotel/bar from his childhood in Texas (Ailey 91). It was called the Dew Drop Inn, where all the African American adults would go at night to have a good time doing scandalous dances to the jukebox and downing drinks (Lewis-Ferguson 4). The message of the piece was that the black people overcame their horrible position of inferiority and brought out of it a brand new style of music called the blues, which had helped them express themselves throughout the hard times (Lewis-Ferguson 24). He was worried that the critics might not accept his choreography but his fears were subsided when the reviews came out (Ailey 92). "John Martin of the New York Times described Blues Suite as Ð''overflowing with variety, beautifully staged with excellent decor and costumes by Geoffrey Holder and on this occasion was superbly danced.'" (qtd. in Ailey 92).

The public had embraced Ailey's vision of what modern dance truly is -- "a popular form, wrenched from the hands of the elite" (Ailey 101). The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was born, being one of the only homes mainly for African Americans.


Until the late 1950's, when Alvin Ailey began reaching toward new heights, there were not many places for African Americans to dance in New York City (Ailey 89). No studio, not to mention major company, would have willingly accepted dancers of a minority race. Ailey knew that the spiritual music and dance styles he was presenting were seen as inferior to European styles, and he wanted the audience to be uplifted by something they may have never felt before (Ailey 150). Out of respect for Lester Horton's multiracial studio and knowing how it felt to be denied a beautiful



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