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African American Heritage Week: Alvin Ailey

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Next on the list of influential figures, and dancing into our hearts, is the dancer, artistic director, and choreographer Alvin Ailey.

Ailey was born in the Great Depression era, 1931, in Texas. He was raised by a single mother after his father left the family, and followed his mother around the state, and eventurally to Los Angeles, in 1941. It was there that Ailey discovered his love of dance at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium, where he saw the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1949, under Lester Horton, Ailey began to study dance part time while studying languages and writing at UCLA.

In 1953, Ailey joined Horton's dance company. When Horton died suddenly that same year, the company was threatened with dissolution unless a leader took the reins. That somebody would be none other than Alvin Ailey. By 1958, Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, whose mission it was to potray and honor black culture through the spirit of dance. The company struggled for years, and finally got its big break after a tour in Russia, where 22 million viewers saw the show on television. AAADT would continue to struggle to find acceptance in a pre-Civil Rights era world, but criticism about "selling blues" and an untruthful portrayal of African Americans as more spiritual than other people didn't faze Ailey. He was quoted as saying:

"The black pieces we do that come from blues, spirituals and gospels are part of what I am. They are as honest and truthful as we can make them. I'm interested in putting something on stage that will have a very wide appeal without being condescending; that will reach an audience and make it part of the dance; that will get everybody into the theater. If it's art and entertainment—thank God, that's what I want to be."

Ailey died in 1989 from complications of HIV/AIDS, before the disease had many treatment options. He was 58 years old.

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