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The Ailey Extension Family

Posted December 1, 2016

The holiday season often makes us nostalgic for warm times shared with family and loved ones. With the abundance of holiday well wishes, we often revel in the sweet moments life has given us throughout the year and life overall. 

This month, we’re taking a look back with instructors who have longtime Ailey family affiliations. They open their hearts and share some of their most memorable and significant Ailey moments with us.

To begin the conversation, we asked them what Alvin Ailey meant to them.

“It represents strength, beauty, power, love, self-confidence,” says Karen Arceneaux. “When I think of the name Alvin Ailey, I think of dreams and how they really do come true.”

“Alvin Ailey [is] my home in New York. Since I moved here six years ago, it has always been a special place,” explained Italian native Riccardo Battaglia.

“To me Ailey represents family,” shares Michael Snipe. “I feel at home here at Ailey. There is just something so warm and welcoming about the atmosphere.”

Sarita Allen remembers Mr. Ailey himself. “Teacher, mentor, father figure, and eventually friend are the first images that come to mind when I think of Alvin Ailey,” Sarita recalls. “He knew my family was on the West Coast and I was here alone, so he made me part of the Ailey family.”

Read on as the instructors share moving memories and significant experiences.

Sarita Allen

Ailey Barre and Pilates Instructor 
Graduate of The Ailey School 
Former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company Member

Alvin was developing a new performance opportunity for young dancers called the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (now Ailey II). He asked me to join the Ensemble and I became one the original members of the group. It took less than a year to make the transition from the Ensemble to the main Ailey company and that first season at City Center was pure magic. I danced with company veterans Sara Yarborough, Estelle Spurlock, and Judith Jamison, which showed me how much [Mr. Ailey] believed in me.  

Of course there were experiences that have become career highlights. We were warned not to travel to Israel because of the constant threat of terrorist bombings and violence, but Alvin said, “That is precisely why we must go.” Dancing 'Fix Me, Jesus' under a full moon at King David's Wall in Jerusalem felt extremely empowering. Long before the 2008 U.S. Congressional resolution designating the Company as “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world,” we understood we had the unique opportunity to share the African-American cultural experience and the American modern dance heritage with the rest of the world. 

When Lisa Johnson-Willingham asked me to design, develop, and implement Ailey Barre, I couldn’t wait to get started. Lisa has been a tireless advocate for Ailey Extension, developing new programs and exploring new avenues to share the Ailey legacy.  The class has become a labor of love and I’m proud it continues to have a positive impact the public. It has been very gratifying making Alvin’s joy of dance accessible to even more people.  Ailey Extension helps keep an important part of Alvin’s vision alive.

Lisa Johnson-Willingham

Extension Director
Former AileyCamp Chicago Director
Former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company member

As the Director of the Extension program, I get to encounter instructors, students, and musicians from all over the world coming together at the Ailey studios to share the universal language of dance. This program personifies Mr. Ailey’s mission to make dance accessible to all people and that dance speaks to everyone. The Extension program allows our Ailey enthusiasts additional experiences beyond the theater which creates a deeper connection with the human spirt.

Mr. Ailey’s commitment to education has been a life-time contribution in arts in education programs around the world. In 1989, a few months before his death, Alvin Ailey created AileyCamp, using the power of dance to enrich and positively impact the lives of children in under-served communities. As a former AileyCamp Director for 10 years, I have witnessed Mr. Ailey’s legacy inspire thousands of children throughout the world to develop self-respect, confidence, and become dreamers while fostering the joy of dance. Today, there are 10 AileyCamps across the nation using Ailey dancers, students, and musicians together as a family making a difference in people’s lives.

Alvin Ailey represents the authenticity of the human spirt that lives inside of all of us. Mr. Ailey was a choreographer who celebrated individuality and taught his dancers to never give up until you have tried all possible ways. He was a game changer in the dance world that opened doors for millions of dancers of color to tell their story and reach unbelievable dreams.

Michael Snipe

Horton Instructor
Former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company member

The curriculum at the school was so diverse. I'm so well rounded because I trained there and they continue to turn out some of the most diverse dancers in the world. I still very close with almost everyone I trained with with at Ailey. The dance world is so small. I am also part of the generation that's making dance. Most of my friends have their own companies. 

Historically, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the beacon of American modern dance. It's one of the most well-known and traveled dance companies in the world. Their message reaches to all people. The dancers they hire are relate-able. It just seemed like the perfect fit.

Karen Arceneaux

Horton and Zumba Instructor
Graduate of The Ailey School

From student, to school administrator, to! I'm forever grateful to Mr. Ailey for following his dream. Because of him, I am living my dream. In all I do in my classes, be it Horton, Zumba, or a performance workshop, my goal is to continue to inspire as I have been inspired.

Making lifelong friendships... I met Jennifer Fyall while studying at the school. In addition to taking classes together, we worked in the office. We graduated from the Certificate Program and then became professionals, Jennifer continuing her work in the marketing department and I in the School. So many years have passed and our friendship/sister-ship has just gotten stronger. If it weren't for me moving to NY from Louisiana to continue my dance training, I would not have been blessed with such an amazing “sister/friend.”

Riccardo Battaglia

Contemporary Instructor
Former Ailey II Company Member

It's so hard to pick one! I have so many great memories from my experience as a student and company member. But the one that comes to my mind right now is when, with Ailey II, I got to perform Revelations in Italy, in front of all my family. 

My experience with the Ailey organization is 360 degrees. I've grown so much as a dancer and as a human being. Starting from the training, dancing all those different techniques and meeting people and cultures from all around the world. Then joining Ailey II, working with different choreographers of every style, traveling all these countries, challenging yourself everyday. Also, getting to dance Revelations, Mr. Ailey's masterpiece, a ballet with so much history. Ailey trained me, shaped me and helped me becoming who I am now.

Interviews conducted and article written by PennyMaria Jackson.


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