Up until I was about 10 or so, dance for me was tap and tutus, toe shoes and the Rockettes, and the New York City Ballet twirling through George Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker. It was the pretty white teacher in my Staten Island, N.Y. dance studio teaching me how to pirouette and the chorus of Fiddler on The Roof kicking through “The Bottle Dance” on Broadway.
And then, back in the early ’70s, my mother took me into Manhattan to see, for the very first time, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, which this month celebrates its 50th anniversary. I remember looking down from my balcony seat, staring at the swirl of black, brown, beige and white bodies on stage. There was the supremely elegant Judith Jamison and the exquisitely lyrical Dudley Williams, impish Masazumi Chaya and gorgeous Mari Kajiwara, with her butt-length hair and her thunder thighs.
I saw them do Revelations and Rainbow Round My Shoulder. I saw them dancing barefoot, and in regular clothes, and to music that sounded totally different from the likes of Tchaikovsky.
I saw all that, and I fell completely and utterly in love. I saw them dance, and I saw my own brown self reflected back at me. I saw them dance, and it made me want to dance, too, in the most lovesick, cracked-out way imaginable. They were beyond beautiful, and I wanted to be a part of that beauty. Even now, years later, long after I’ve retired from my own dance career, long after Ailey and many of his dancers have passed on, whenever I see them perform, I feel this sense of yearning.
They’ve been a part of my life ever since that first time I saw them, from my days as a student at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in the mid-’80s, hanging out with members of the company and watching them perform, year after year. For me, and for scores of other young dancers, and non-dancers as well, Ailey made dance accessible. Dance that was black and beautiful, but dance that was big enough to include folks of all colors. Dance that was rooted in the South, in the street, in the blues and in gospel, what Ailey himself called “anthems to the human spirit.”
In high school, after my family moved to Atlanta, I took a master class with the company during their month-long residency at Spelman College. We danced to drums, studying the Horton technique that was the basis for Ailey’s style, all long, angular lines and tabletop turns. Before class, I’d sit on the sidelines, watching the company dancers go through their paces in rehearsals—dancing “Suite Otis,” Ailey’s homage to Otis Redding. I counted the women’s grand battements as Otis shouted about how he couldn’t get no satisfaction, and I assured myself that I could do what they did.
Later, after a concert, I waited backstage for Alvin Ailey to come out. Once, in the late ’70s, I saw him, and I pounced. What, I wanted to know, advice did he have for wannabe dancers?
“Work,” he told me.
I took that to heart. As soon as I graduated college, I moved back to New York and auditioned for and was accepted into the school. I joined hundreds of other brown, black, white and yellow bodies that’d seen the Ailey company perform, fell in love and figured that they could do it, too.