African American Studies Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Thomas DeFrantz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0064


Born on 5 January 1931 in Rogers, Texas, the only child of parents who separated when he was two, choreographer Alvin Ailey (b. 1931–d. 1989) moved to Los Angeles with his mother in 1942. Shy from an itinerant Texas life, Ailey turned to dance when a high-school classmate introduced him to Lester Horton’s studio in 1949. He immersed himself in study and developed a weighty, smoldering performance style that suited his athletic body. Ailey moved to New York in 1954 to dance with Carmen DeLavallade in the Broadway production of House of Flowers. Performing success led him to found Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958. The company began as a repertory company devoted to both modern dance classics and new works created by Ailey and other young artists. The critically acclaimed first concerts in 1958 and 1960 marked the beginning of a new era of dance performance devoted to African American themes. His dance Blues Suite (1958), set in and around a barrelhouse, depicts the desperation and joys of life on the edge of poverty in the South. Highly theatrical and immediately accessible, the dance contains sections of early-20th-century social dances, Horton dance technique, Jack Cole–inspired jazz dance, and ballet partnering. Early performances of Revelations (1960) established Ailey’s company as the foremost dance interpreter of African American experience. The dance quickly became the company’s signature ballet, eclipsing previous concert attempts at dancing to sacred Black music. Set to a series of spirituals and gospel selections, Revelations depicts a spectrum of Black religious worship, including richly sculpted group prayer (“I’ve Been Buked”), a ceremony of ritual baptism (“Wade in the Water”), a moment of introverted, private communion (“I Wanna Be Ready”), a duet of trust and support for a minister and devotee (“Fix Me, Jesus”), and a final, celebratory gospel exclamation, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” Ailey’s ballet Feast of Ashes (1962), created for the Harkness Ballet, is acknowledged as the first successful pointe ballet choreographed by a modern dancer. Major distinctions and honors followed Ailey throughout his choreographic career, which spanned the creation of more than fifty dances for his own company and others. The Ailey company continues as a highly successful operation after Ailey’s death, and is affiliated with a large dance complex in New York City that offers comprehensive courses in dance study as well as venues for performance.

General Sources

Understanding Alvin Ailey’s achievement requires knowledge of the circumstances surrounding modern dance practices in the United States in the 20th century. General overviews of modern dance highlight Ailey’s achievement as central to African American participation in concert dance as well as the ways that Black dancers worked simultaneously as artists and as racialized representatives for all Black people. Foulkes 2002 offers a general overview of concert dance development within the United States. Emery 1972 serves as the foundational text for understanding dance history particular to African American practices. Long 1989 narrates the particular routes allowed to African American artists and their varied achievements in professional dance. Rogosin 1980 documents first-person accounts of successful working choreographers of the 20th century, including Ailey. Manning 2004 explores race and sexuality as analytic modes to consider American dance histories. Croft 2015 establishes a context for understanding how dance companies were mobilized by the US government as cultural representatives abroad, even when race and gender relations remained unresolved at home. DeFrantz 2004 provides a complete overview of Ailey’s choreographic output and includes details about the many artists affiliated with the Ailey enterprise.

  • Croft, Clare. Dancers as Diplomats: American Choreography in Cultural Exchange. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199958191.001.0001

    Study of the ways that dance companies were deployed as cultural ambassadors by the US government from the mid-20th century into the 21st century.

  • DeFrantz, Thomas F. Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Overview of Ailey’s entire choreographic output, including the works that he made for various ballet companies, Broadway, and his own, always-changing, troupe. Also explores varied theoretical lenses useful in thinking through Ailey’s achievement.

  • Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970. Palo Alto, CA: National Press Books, 1972.

    The authoritative text that presents bibliographic resources for in-depth study of historical routes of embodied African American creativity. Crucial for understanding dances of the Caribbean and their influences on early American dance practices.

  • Foulkes, Julia L. Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

    Fine overview of modern dance and its sources and influences as narrated by artists and critics of the 20th century.

  • Long, Richard. The Black Tradition in American Dance. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.

    Splendidly illustrated offering that traces outstanding achievements in dance realized by African American artists in ballet, modern dance, and popular theatrical forms. Excellent chronology and historical detail that suggest routes of further study.

  • Manning, Susan. Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

    Academic text that places African American achievement alongside that of other artists and considers shifting contexts that circumscribed assessment. Strong analysis of spectatorship, and how audiences view performance according to preferences.

  • Rogosin, Elinor. The Dance Makers: Conversations with American Choreographers. New York: Walker, 1980.

    Transcripts of interviews conducted for a radio series, with basic information about the intentions that artists brought into their creative practices.

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