The Life and Times of Alvin Ailey

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The life and times of Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey was born on January 5, 1931 in Rogers, Texas to Lula Elizabeth Ailey. Lula was only 17 years old at the time of his birth. His father abandoned the family when Alvin was only six months old. Because the era Alvin was born in was the Great Depression, the Aileys moved around often. Growing up during the great depression also meant that his mother had a hard time finding work. Unfortunately, Alvin also grew up during a time of racial segregation, violence and lynching against African-Americans. When Alvin was five, he began to fear whites when his mother was raped by a group of white men. She was only 22 years old when this happened. That was not the only culture shock in Alvin’s life though. He also attended a Southern Baptist church. The church left Alvin with experiences that filled him with a great sense of black pride. That sense of black pride would later be blatantly shown in Ailey's signature works. Like many other African Americans, Ailey’s mother moved in the fall of 1942 to Los Angeles, California. This is because rumors were heard that there were well paid jobs in helping with the war effort. Alvin had stayed back in Texas to finish out the school year but eventually joined his mother by train. The first junior high school that Ailey attended in California happened to be located in a primarily white school district. This made Alvin uncomfortable because of his fear of whites and because he was one of the few black students. Eventually, the Aileys moved to a predominantly black school district. Here he first attended George Washington Carver Junior High School, and after, Thomas Jefferson High School. During this time he sang in the glee club and wrote poetry. To pass time Alvin would attend shows at Lincoln Theater and the Orpheum Theater. In 1949, Alvin met a friend at school by the name of Carmen De Lavallade. Carmen first introduced Ailey to the Hollywood Studio of Lester Horton. Before this point, Alvin was never really serious about dance. At the studio Alvin met Lester Horton who would prove to be an important event in his life. Lester Horton was a major influence in Alvin’s whole career. Horton became a mentor, teaching him how to grow artistically through technique and giving him a foundation. Dance styles and techniques, such as classical ballet, jazz, and Native American dance were all taught at Horton’s school. At first, Alvin was not sure if he truly wanted to be a professional dancer. Ailey would even keep his life as a dancer a secret from his mother for the first two years. Ailey focused more on academics, primarily studying languages and writings. Alvin took courses at various universities in California where he studied the writings of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Carson McCullers. In 1951 Alvin moved to San Francisco to continue his studies where he met Marguerite Johnson who goes by the name Maya Angelou now. They would occasionally performed poetry at a nightclub act called "Al and Rita". To earn a living Alvin worked at the New Orleans Champagne Supper Club waiting tables and dancing. After a while Ailey returned to study dance with Horton in southern California. Alvin joined Horton's company in 1953. Ailey began to study full time at Horton’s school when he was twenty-two. His major debut was in Horton's Revue Le Bal Caribe. After his debut, Ailey performed in several Hollywood films. Like all of Horton's students, Ailey also studied other art forms, including painting, acting, music, set design, and costuming, as well as ballet, modern, and ethnic dance. When Horton died of a heart attack in November 1953 he left the company without an artistic director. When no one else stepped forward, Ailey took the role of artistic director. At this time Ailey was still only twenty-two and had choreographed only one dance in a workshop. Despite his youth and lack of experience though, he began choreographing, directing scene and costume designs, and...
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