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.
Of course, it wasn't that easy. Ailey dancers are among the best in the world, possessors of the most prodigious of techniques. Back in the '80s, when I was a dancer, it wasn't uncommon for over 300 dancers to show up to audition for one slot. I wasn't good enough to be considered for that one slot, and I knew it. I didn't even bother auditioning for the professional company. But there were gazillions of other dance companies—black companies that came into being thanks to the outrageous success and popularity of Ailey—black companies with a similar repertoire. (Everybody, it seemed, had a gospel-flavored Revelations, or some Motown-inspired version of a Suite Otis or Talley Beatty's gritty urban The Stack-up. I should know—I danced in plenty of them.) These were companies where I, like many other young black dancers, could rehearse and learn repertory, and hope that one day….
So every morning, I'd take a 90-minute ballet class at Madame Darvash on Broadway, before dashing to my part-time gig selling Broadway theater tickets over the phone. If I had time, I'd sneak out of work and head over to the Ailey center to squeeze in a modern dance class. After work, I'd head over to rehearsal with the Nanette Bearden Contemporary Dance Theatre. There, I'd rehearse until 10 p.m., when I'd head home to Harlem, to grab a few winks of sleep before it was time to get up and do it all over again.
It was a tough life. I was broker than broke, frequently injured and despairing that I'd ever make it. I'd go see Ailey perform and find inspiration.
I remember attending their 25th anniversary celebration, and seeing my dance teacher, Ailey alum Miguel Godreau, spinning and jetéing through Sinner Man with a fierceness, long, curly hair flying, living up to his nickname, "The Black Nureyev." I remember Ailey's muse, Carmen de Lavallade, wife of Geoffrey Holder, so beautiful, so tranquil, showing me that there is beauty in aging, too.
I knew all the names of all the dancers then: Gary DeLoatch, Marilyn Banks, Donna Wood, April Berry, Keith McDaniel, Maxine Sherman. I became friends with Gary's roommate, and hanging out at their apartment, attending their parties, star-struck me saw that these divine creatures of dance were fallible folks, too. Humans with bunions who danced until the skin on their feet split, just like me. Humans who worried about getting too fat, or that they'd fallen out of favor with the company, or who slept, heavy books balanced carefully on their knees, prying their hips open in search of that elusive turnout.
They were fallible in another way, too: As soon as I started my dance career, AIDS caught up with many of them. Back then, no one openly acknowledged that they had AIDS. You'd see a young dancer looking suspiciously thin and drawn, and the next thing you knew they were gone. Most of the men who were in the dance companies that I performed with are gone, including my former roommate, the wonderfully talented Darryl Sneed. A whole generation of dancers, wiped out.
Not long after Gary DeLoatch died in the early '90s, choreographer Billy Wilson crafted the beautifully mournful "Winter in Lisbon" in memory of Gary. At the end of the piece, the dancers danced around a big picture of Gary. I remember watching it and crying.
Last year, I went to see Ailey perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington. They performed "Winter in Lisbon," but this time, no picture of Gary came tumbling down. It's a different time, a different generation of dancers. Just as today's dancers don't know Gary, I don't know the names of today's dancers in the way that I knew the ones that came before them.
Not that it matters. Dancers and dance companies come and go. Ailey himself has come and gone. But 50 years after its first performance at the 92nd Street Y on Dec. 3, 1958, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater endures. And 50 years from now, I believe, another crop of Aileyites will be bringing dance to folks who don't know the difference between a layout and an arabesque penche, rendering black life beautiful.
Teresa Wiltz is a regular contributor to The Root.