Alvin Ailey Jr. was born to Alvin and Lula Elizabeth Ailey on January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas. He was an only child, and his father, a laborer, left the family when Alvin Jr. was less than one year old. At the age of six, Alvin Jr. moved with his mother to Navasota, Texas.
As he recalled in an interview in the New York Daily News Magazine, “There was the white school up on the hill, and the black Baptist church, and the segregated [only members of one race allowed] theaters and neighborhoods. Ailey became interested in athletics and joined his high school gymnastics team and played football.
An admirer of dancers Gene Kelly (1912–1996) and Fred Astaire (1899–1987), he also took tap dancing lessons at a neighbor’s home. His interest in dance grew when a friend took him to visit the modern dance school run by Lester Horton, whose dance company (a group of dancers who perform together) was the first in America to admit members of all races.
Unsure of what opportunities would be available for him as a dancer; however, Ailey left Horton’s school after one month. After graduating from high school in 1948, Ailey considered becoming a teacher. He entered the University of California in Los Angeles to study languages. When Horton offered him a scholarship in 1949 Ailey returned to the dance school.
In 1958 Ailey and another dancer with an interest in choreographing recruited dancers to perform several concerts at the 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association in New York City, a place where modern dances and the works of new choreographers were seen.
Ailey’s first major piece, Blues Suite, was inspired by blues music. In the mid-1960s, he stopped performing and focused only on choreography. In 1962, the U.S. State Department funded the Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s first overseas tour.
This helped him create an international reputation. His works included a number of brilliant dance performances such as ‘Masekela Language’ (1969), which depicted the experience of being black in South Africa.
By the late 1970s Ailey’s company was one of America’s most popular dance troupes. Its members continued touring around the world, with U.S. State Department backing. They were the first modern dancers to visit the former Soviet Union since the 1920s.
In 1971 Ailey’s company was asked to return to the City Center Theater in New York City after a performance featured Ailey’s celebrated solo, Cry. Danced by Judith Jamison, she made it one of the troupe’s best known pieces.
Throughout his lifetime he received numerous honors and awards, and in 2014, he posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of his contributions and commitment to civil rights and dance in America.
When Mr. Ailey died on December 1, 1989, The New York Times said of him, “You didn’t need to have known [him] personally to have been touched by his humanity, enthusiasm, and exuberance and his courageous stand for multi-racial brotherhood.”