Modern dance pioneer Alvin Ailey is recognized for his lasting impact on the American arts landscape, which he achieved despite struggles with mental illness and internal conflict about his sexuality.
In 1931, Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas. Shy and artistic, he was uncomfortably aware of his attraction to other boys at an early age, but his strapping physique spared him from harassment.
Moving to Los Angeles, Ailey developed a love for dance after seeing the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and a performance by Katherine Dunham. Through a classmate, he met and began studying with Lester Horton, who created the first racially integrated dance company in America.
Having transferred to San Francisco State College, Ailey continued to dance, performing at a nightclub with Maya Angelou (then a dance student). Eventually, he decided to leave school, and join Horton’s troupe.
After Horton’s death in 1953, Ailey was named director of the company. A year later, he relocated to New York City. He studied with dance masters, including Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. His work was well-received, but jobs for black dancers were scarce.
To offer more opportunities for black talent, Ailey started his own company—soon dubbed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT)—which made its debut in 1958. In 1962, the US State Department began sponsoring AAADT on international tours. Ailey integrated the company in 1963, saying he wanted to work with the most talented dancers regardless of race. Even as Ailey continued to develop pieces for AAADT, he mentored several promising young performers, including ballerina Judith Jamison (who succeeded Ailey as AAADT artistic director).
Despite his professional success, Ailey’s personal life was beset with difficulties. Though his proclivities were an open secret, he rarely spoke of his personal relationships, and seemed ill at ease with his sexuality. He was in a several-year romantic relationship with a young white schoolteacher who helped manage the dance company. Thereafter, Ailey spent his time socializing in gay bars. He had numerous short-term liaisons with young men who his friends felt took advantage of his generosity. He suffered from bipolar disorder, which worsened over time, as did his drinking and drug use.
In his 50s, by the time the AIDS crisis struck New York City, Ailey contracted the disease. Though increasingly ill, he continued traveling to oversee productions and receive awards. He died in 1989 from AIDS-related complications.
In Ailey’s memory, a stretch of West 61st Street was renamed “Alvin Ailey Way.” But his greatest legacy is AAADT, which has performed for more than 20 million people in some 70 countries.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication, or at <[email protected]>.