Born to a teen mother whose husband left her early on, Alvin Ailey grew up in the small Texas town of Navasota with a family that was facing financial difficulties. Drawing inspiration from the black church services and the music at the local dance hall, Ailey left for Los Angeles at the age of 12 in order to make something out of his life.
In the new city, Ailey proved to be a gifted individual in various fields. Excelling in language and athletics, Ailey decided to pursue dancing after drawing inspiration from Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Studying modern dance with Lester Horton in 1949, the young enthusiast joined Horton’s dance company the following year.
The 1954 musical, House of Flowers, saw Ailey’s debut Broadway performance followed by his appearance in The Carefree Tree. Serving as the lead dancer in Broadway’s musical, Jamaica, the rising star also benefited from the opportunity of studying dance with Martha Graham and acting with Stella Adler.
In 1958, Ailey founded his own dance company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, which was devoted towards modern dance classics and new works created by Ailey based on African-American themes. Following his first successful concert in 1958, Ailey debuted Blues Suite, a piece inspired by his southern roots. Reflecting on his past in Texas and the Baptist Church, Revelations was another one of his early performance and the African-American inspired musical performance impressed many. Included in the concert were pieces like I’ve been Buked, Wade in the Water and I Wanna be Ready, all of which revolved around black religious beliefs.
Early next decade, the dance company went out on the road and had its tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department which helped establish the company as an international firm. Even though Ailey stopped performing in the mid-1960s, he continued to choreograph various masterpieces. Ailey formed his own dance school, The Ailey School, in 1969.
Putting up impressive shows including the Night Creature and Masakela Language, Ailey continued to expand his dance company by establishing the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble in 1974. Choreographing as many as 80 ballets, Ailey was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1988 for his contributions to the arts. Ailey also created close to 50 dances for his own company, American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, the London Festival Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet.
Receiving honors in fine arts from Princeton University, Bard College, Adelphi University, and Cedar Crest College, Alvin Ailey died of AIDS at the age of 58 in 1989. Even though his death resulted in numerous mourners, Ailey continues to be an important figure in fine arts as dancers from his company continue to perform for millions of people around the world. Amongst his other awards are a United Nations Peace Medal, and an NAACP Spingarn Medal which he received in 1976.