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Every. Body.

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I don’t remember when the name Alvin Ailey stitched itself in my body, heart and soul, but ever since I was a child, the idea of the Alvin Ailey School represented possibility for me. My peers, mostly middle to low-income students of color, and I have always leaned on each other and reflected upon our experiences in spaces that primarily serve the needs and desires of the status quo. As privileged members of marginalized communities, we often connect on the sacrifices we’ve had to make to access opportunity. We acknowledge that our individual successes are rooted in luck and our keen ability to mimic and conform to dominant norms, regarding speech, presentation and other traits. As my undergraduate career comes to a close, I have been reflecting a lot on what non-traditional students (students of color, low-income students, first generation students) sacrifice unknowingly. In many of our cases, our aspirations are largely filtered and shaped by the needs of our families and communities. One of the biggest regrets these students and other marginalized people in our society often face in order to achieve “success” is the realization that not everyone in our society has the right to dream.

For me, Alvin Ailey is a prime example of the ways these communities foster dreaming in societies that believe they are devoid of desire and feelings. It’s one thing to try and survive in a society that profits from your oppression. It’s another thing to dream. Similar to what was discussed in Kirk Branch’s, “Eyes On the Ought to Be” and in the presentation by NELI and CADBI, freedom is always based in fiction and requires us to imagine a better world I believe that activism is rooted in two things: the experiences of the most marginalized people and the ability to dream or imagine a better world. I believe Alvin Ailey’s work embodied both of these principles.

Alvin Ailey was born on July 5th, 2931 in Rogers, Texas. His work has contributed greatly to the world of modern dance and is often integral to modern dance instruction. Ailey’s work was undoubtedly anchored in the experiences of African Americans living in the South. According to Ailey, his body of work relied heavily on “blood memories, blood memories about Texas, the blues, spirituals, gospel, work songs, all those things going on in Texas in the 1930s during the depression” (Wilson 2008: 161). Alvin Ailey was committed to honoring the complexity of Black experiences and Black feelings. His ballet, Blue Suite, was set in a “backwoods music  hall/whorehouse  for working-class African Americans” (Holloway 2013: 78). Ailey chose to represent prostitutes and johns as the protagonists in this work. Throughout the ballet, the audience watch as the characters use the blues and their shared feelings of despair to navigate socioeconomic violence. Ailey’s signature piece, Revelations, reflected on the healing power of the Black church. Revelations honored the role of the church in Black survival while reflecting on the pain of slavery (Holloway 2013: 78).

 The first time I saw the Alvin Ailey Dance Company perform, I was a senior in high school on a cultural excursion with the Princeton University Preparatory Program - a college access program that supports low-income, high-achieving high school students in Mercer County, New Jersey. I had spent the last three years participating in a program that had been academically and culturally grooming me to attend an elite college. For my family, college was a dream because of our financial situation. The day PUPP took me to see Alvin Ailey perform, a dream that I never thought would come true, college felt more tangible. Ailey opened his school in 1969 and structured the school in a manner that emphasized his belief that dance is for everybody. I can imagine, as a Black man - born in the 30s - from Texas who was passionate about ballet, Ailey faced a lot obstacles. As a Black man, society had already determined what he could achieve. It had already created limits based on the idea that certain bodies shouldn’t do certain things, shouldn’t feel certain things, shouldn’t want certain things. His body became the site of activism as he pursued his own dream and made the way a little easier for those coming up behind him. Ailey’s work enabled dancers to remember their history in their bodies. Studies have shown how trauma, specifically the trauma of slavery and oppression, lives in the body. Ailey’s pieces provided an alternative method for living in bodies that have inherited centuries of pain. His pieces used dance as a shared language to talk about Black pain and express Black triumph. In addition to producing pieces that celebrated African American histories and lives, Ailey’s activism was exemplified in his dedication to creating spaces for Black artists.



 Branch, Kirk. Introduction, Eyes on the Ought to Be: What We Teach About When We Teach About Literacy (New York: Hampton Press, 2007), 1-15:

Holloway, Jonathan Scott. "THE BLACK BODY AS ARCHIVE OF MEMORY." In Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America since 1940, 67-101. University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

 WILSON, CHARLES REAGAN, and CHARLES REAGAN WILSON. "Ailey, Alvin: (1931–1989) DANCER AND CHOREOGRAPHER." In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 12: Music, edited by MALONE BILL C., 161-62. University of North Carolina Press, 2008.