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Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture

Alvin Ailey (1931–89) is arguably the most important black American choreographer
in the short history of modern dance. He created a body of dance works
that shaped African American participation in American modern dance during
the thirty-year period before his death. The company he founded in 1958, the
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, has grown from a small pick-up company
of seven or eight dancers to a large, carefully managed, internationally renowned
enterprise including several ensembles of dancers and a thriving school. This
study of Ailey’s dances illuminates the dual achievement of Ailey as an artist and
as an arts activist committed to developing an African American presence in
concert dance.

As my title suggests, I propose that Ailey encoded aspects of African American
life and culture in concert dance. These “aspects”—aesthetic imperatives
termed “Africanisms” by cultural theorists1—flourish in the movements of
dancers Ailey worked with; they are also embedded within the very choreography
Ailey made. They emerge in compositional strategies, choices of music,
structuring of performance, casting, and approach to company operations. This
study explores particular examples of how Ailey captured black experience in
terms of concert dance.
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