Our American Story

Explore Initiative

Lonnie Bunch, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present A Page From Our American Story, a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. It showcases individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.

Transforming Dance around the World

“Each movement is the sum total of moments and experiences.” These are the words of dance legend Alvin Ailey. The “moments and experiences” he expressed through his decades-long dance career reflected the African American journey, changed modern dance, and revolutionized African American participation in the art form.

Ailey was born in 1931 in Rodgers, Texas, during the Great Depression. Although he left the area for Los Angeles in 1942, his earliest experiences in rural Texas—from juke joints and his Southern Baptist church, to living with a survivalist mentality during the Jim Crow era—would go on to feature prominently in his work.

Black and white portrait image of African American man standing shirtless with arms crossed in front.

Portrait of Alvin Ailey, 1962

Photography by Jack Mitchell © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, All rights reserved. 2013.245

As a teenager in Los Angeles, Ailey was highly athletic, but didn't find his primary mode of self-expression until he discovered dance. In 1949, classmate and future collaborator Carmen De Lavallade introduced him to the dance studio of renowned dancer Lester Horton. Horton’s studio heavily influenced Ailey’s lifelong emphasis on running a progressive, multiracial studio with a keen focus on research, preparation, and production values in lighting, music, costumes, and storytelling.

At first, Ailey resisted committing himself to the field and attended three different colleges before immersing himself in dance. By 1954, he moved to New York and just four years later founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, a dance company with a vision that would transform African American involvement in modern dance.

The cultural heritage of the American Negro is one of America’s richest treasures. From his roots as a slave, the American Negro—sometimes sorrowing, sometimes jubilant but always hopeful—has touched, illuminated, and influenced the most preserves of world civilization. I and my dance theater celebrate this trembling beauty.

Alvin Ailey

In 1960, Ailey mesmerized the dance world with his masterpiece “Revelations.” It told the African American story from slavery to freedom and remains the best-known and most-performed work of modern dance today. Ailey was immediately recognized for his talent, and his dance company performed for eager audiences throughout the United States and around the world.

Six male dancers on stage in two rows of three. All topless with their arms stretched out wide. The dancer in the back row middle is hunched over slightly, while the other 5 are bent over forward to greater and varied degrees  with one leg stretched out to the side.

Revelations, 1961

Photography by Jack Mitchell © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, All rights reserved. 2013.245

In 1962, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater toured the Far East, Southeast Asia, and Australia as part of President John F. Kennedy’s “President’s Special International Program for Cultural Presentations.” Other groundbreaking tours included countries for which the United States sought to build relationships, such as a 10-country tour of Africa for the State Department in 1967, the USSR in 1970, and China in 1985. In addition, it performed at the White House for Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, as well as at memorable engagements like opening of the famed Studio 54, the Opening Ceremonies of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and at 3:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day for the Prince of Morocco in 1978. Not surprisingly, the company gained the nickname “Cultural Ambassador to the World.”

Even with extensive travel, Ailey never strayed far from his roots. As his company embraced greater diversity and invited interracial perspectives into its performances, Ailey never lost his commitment to the African American community. In 1969, he established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, which became the Ailey School; formed the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble; and pioneered programs promoting arts in education, particularly those that benefited underserved communities.

His artistic range included ballets, modern dances, and productions for television and musical theater. Ailey’s talents and contributions to the dance world earned him the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, a Kennedy Center Honor, several honorary doctorates, the Samuel H. Scripps Award of the American Dance Festival for Lifetime Achievement, and the United Nations Peace Medal.

One female dancer turned o the side posing with one foot forward, one arm stretched parallel to the floor with hand pointed down and one arm stretched straight up with hand parallel to the floor. Behind her is a mail dancer in the air with knees pulled up to waist high and arms bent at right angles along side the upper legs.

Rainbow Round My Shoulder

Photography by Jack Mitchell © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, All rights reserved. 2013.245

Ailey made an immeasurable impact around the world of dance. By weaving African American themes into his dances, he ushered in a new era of concert dance. In 2014, President Barack Obama selected Ailey to be a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, his influence prevails in a body of work that continues to be performed more than 50 years later and a dance theater company that continues to flourish.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is honored to possess the Jack Mitchell Ailey Collection. The collection is comprised of approximately 10,000 black and white negatives, 600 contact sheets, 1,300 color slides and transparencies, and 350 black and white prints that tell the story of Alvin Ailey and his lasting impact on American dance culture.

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