Alvin Ailey: A Legacy of Dance

His Early Life

Alvin Ailey was a dancer, director, choreographer, and activist. Ailey was born January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas. Born in the height of the Great Depression and in the racist and segregated rural south, Ailey and his mother often struggled. They often traveled for employment and worked in cotton fields and as domestics for white families. Ailey found refuge in the church, often sneaking out to watch the adults dance.

In 1941, Ailey and his mother moved to Los Angeles, California. It would be only five years later that Ailey had his first experience with concert dance after seeing the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. However, it would not be until 1949 when his classmate and friend Carmen De Lavallade dragged him to the Melrose Avenue studio of Lester Horton that Ailey became serious about dance.

Before committing to dance as his professional career, Ailey studied romance languages and writing at the University of California, Los Angeles, and San Francisco State University. While living in San Francisco, Ailey met Maya Angelou (who was then known as Marguerite Johnson) and they formed a nightclub act called “Al and Rita”.

His Dancing Journey

Ailey would join Lester Holton’s dance company in 1953. Horton was the founder of one of the first racially-integrated dance companies in the United States and became a mentor for Ailey as he began his professional career. Ailey made his debut for the company in Horton’s Revue Le Bal Caribe. Unfortunately, Horton passed away from a heart attack later that year and Ailey took over as artistic director and choreographer.

In 1958, Ailey would go on to develop the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with the intention of honoring Black culture through dance. It is estimated that the company has performed for 25 million people in 71 countries across six continents.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has performed for an estimated 25 million people in 71 countries on six continents—as well as millions more through television broadcasts, film screenings and online platforms—promoting the uniqueness of the African American cultural experience and the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance tradition.

Alvin’s Legacy

Alvin Ailey died from AIDS complications on December 1, 1989, at the age of 58. Nonetheless, Ailey’s legacy continues to live on. Ailey was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 from President Barack Obama for his work in bringing dance to underserved communities.

A Selection of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Performances

References include,, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

By Kamrie Risku