Alvin Ailey and Sociology

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Jerry Tarn
Professor Douglas Kierdorf
Social Science 102
April 18th, 2013
Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” and Sociology
As the world begins to modernize, society develops into what sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies calls a “Gesellschaft” society. In a Gesellschaft society, people concentrate only on themselves and build relationships mostly based on the possible monetary gains. Because people are so focused on money, matters that do not possess any monetary value tend to be discarded as insignificant or unworthy. Subjects such as the arts are often seen as unnecessary, excess, and impractical. However, what people fail to realize, is that art is in fact an integral part of humanity. Art can provide deep insights into our society, revealing both its positive and negative aspects in the most genuine form. Dance−a physical expression of art−is one of the many methods people uses to portray the various characteristics of society. Alvin Ailey’s signature work: “Revelations”, produced in 1960, is a prime example that reflected and exposed the social changes that were occurring during that era.

The 1960s was marked as a time of great change as it was the era when America began to transform into an increasingly modern society. There were significant improvements in science (and technology exemplified by the start of the space exploration), which greatly changed how people lived and viewed the world. However, the most important changes were probably societal ones, namely the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was categorized by African Americans expressing their dissatisfactions with the injustices that they had to endure in past century. Although African Americans were liberated from slavery after the Civil War, they still had to deal with the inequality of racial segregation. Under those laws, African Americans had to face disadvantages such as (but not limited to): lack of voting rights, inferior quality of facilities, and unequal treatment under law. In sociological terms, there was little social mobility, institutionalized discrimination, and communities were racially stratified. It was not until the 1960s that the nonviolent protests and public civil disobediences of African Americans began to gain prominence and produce effect. In 1960, one of the many famous acts of civil disobedience, the “Greensboro Sit-Ins” occurred. The sit-ins consisted of multiple instances of nonviolent protests at the Woolworth Store in Greensboro, North Carolina by local African American students. After repeated protests and growing tensions, the store finally desegregated its services. Coincidently, Ailey’s “Revelations” was produced in the same year that the protests occurred. Although there wasn’t a direct correlation between the Greensboro protests and the creation of Ailey’s dance, the production of Ailey’s dance was nevertheless a sign of social change. When Ailey’s dance company first performed, they changed the entire dynamic of American Dance Theater as African American way of life was finally represented by African Americans instead of by proxies of Caucasian dancers. The ability of African American dancers to represent their own culture shows the social change of the transfer of authority (of the dance theater industry) from the dominant group to the minority group. Another way that Ailey’s dance company signified social change was its integration of different ethnic groups. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Lester Horton, Ailey decided to include dancers of different races into his dance company in 1962. Ailey’s practice of what sociologists termed “ethnic pluralism” was another sign of social change.

Besides evidencing social change, “Revelations” also reflected the various elements of American society. The dance itself was able to show these elements through the contents of the plot, which was divided into three sections: “Pilgrim of Sorrow”, “Take Me to the Water”, and “Move Members, Move”. The first section,...
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