Alvin Ailey celebrates 50 years

February 5, 2009 2:37:51 PM PST
The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is celebrating a big anniversary. It is honoring 50 years of American dance.There are festivities planned over the next few months.

Right now, the dance troupe is in the middle of a 36-city international tour. Here at home, Lincoln Center is honoring Ailey with a look back at the first 50 years.

Link to Much More on Alvin Ailey and the American Dance Theater
*Interview with Judith Jamison
*ABC7 Celebrates Black History Month

The group holds the prestigious title of cultural ambassador to the world, partly because of the many lives they have touched.

It all began in 1958. A golden glow illuminated the 92nd street YMCA, a brilliant light that would come to be known as the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.

"He was so specific about saying, 'All right, this hasn't been seen the way I'm going to show it," Judith Jamison said.

Jamison is credited with being Ailey's muse. She danced with the company for 15 years and now sits at the helm as artistic director.

"Alvin was a very magical person," she said. "One of those people who has an air about them, but that air is very penetrable."

Born in 1931 in Texas, Ailey created a modern dance company with hints of the blues, spirituals and gospel.

"What Alvin set out to do was to give opportunities to black dancers," said Wendy Perron, of "Dance Magazine." "It showed how many there are, how great they can be and how great they look in every type of choreography."

A pioneering group of 13 dancers first introduced the world to "blues suite," now an Ailey classic. His vision was to create a company that showcased African-American dancers telling stories everyone could relate to.

"When you go to an Ailey performance, you don't stay neutral," Perron said. "You don't say, 'Well I like that.' You say, 'Wow, I'm in there with them.'"

The company prides itself for becoming part of people's lives in almost every corner of the globe. But New York City is always considered home.

"It's important that we are part of the cultural fabric of this great city," Jamison said. "It's important because we have changed how the city feels about dance."

"Ailey always talked about how dance came from the people, and it should be delivered back to the people," dancer Matthew Rushing said. "Bringing children who would normally never come into the theater and giving them experience."

That experience is shared every December at City Center. Ailey is the only modern dance company to hold an impressive five-week run there.

Ailey holds the prestigious title of cultural ambassadors to the world. Many believe Alvin's dream is now bigger than he ever imagined, with the company performing on mainstreams shows. It's clear the Ailey experience is not felt by just the dance community, but by all.

"He was so specific, I think he realized his purpose," Jamison said. "How fabulous, I don't know."

Jamison says one of her fondest memories of Ailey was what he constantly told his dancers, that they were on stage to reflect life to the audience, not just to kick and turn.

For more on the Ailey celebration, visit