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Alvin Ailey’s 93rd Birthday

Posted January 5, 2024

“The original seed that Alvin planted so many years ago has flourished into an immense tree with deep roots—constantly growing, always reaching toward the light. This light continues to shine on us as we forge new paths.”

- Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison

On January 5, 2024—Alvin Ailey’s 93rd birthday—we celebrate and honor the man who sowed the seeds of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Through his ballets, which embrace Black cultural heritage, he changed the trajectory of American modern dance.

The man behind the legacy is remembered best, however, by those closest to him.

Alvin Ailey, Jr., was born in a single-room wooden cabin outside of Rogers, Texas, appointed only with a bed, a cot, and a potbellied stove. His earliest years were spent moving around Texas with his mother Lula, who earned a living cooking, cleaning, and picking cotton. It was a humble existence, and yet he was an outsized character from the beginning.

"He was kind of bossy. He’d call me Lula until I started teaching him to call me Mama when he was eight or nine."

- Lula Elizabeth Cliff, Mr. Ailey’s mother*

Alvin Ailey with mother Lula Cooper, courtesy of Ailey Archives

Alvin Ailey with mother Lula Cooper, courtesy of Ailey Archives


At 11, Mr. Ailey moved to Los Angeles with his mother. Throughout his teenage years he was exposed to the works of artistic powerhouses such as Duke Ellington and Katherine Dunham. In high school, Mr. Ailey was known as a quiet, confident young man who was a voracious reader with a facility for languages and poetry. And yet physically he was a solidly rugged young man who could easily be mistaken for a quarterback. Mr. Ailey’s introduction to choreographer Lester Horton, by his talented and captivating friend Carmen De Lavallade, allowed him to combine his curious mind and raw movement talent. While he was by no means a natural when he started dancing, his earliest peers at Lester Horton’s Dance Theater recognized his rare presence:

"I could see that he had a special quality. That quality had to do with his courage to extend the motion beyond the specific line I was describing. He understood it and immediately created something of his own with it."

- Majorie Berman Perces, Mr. Ailey’s dance teacher

"He was not a good technician and he couldn’t remember things. He was rather shy, and pulled back. But when he moved it was absolutely magnetic. He had this wonderful kind of cat-like quality, with all this masculine strength."

- James Truitte, dancer

Alvin Ailey in 'Revelations', photo by Fannie Helen Mercer

Alvin Ailey in Revelations, photo by Fannie Helen Mercer


When he moved to New York in 1954, Mr. Ailey took classes with modern dance legends Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, as well as at Katherine Dunham's school. He quickly established a reputation as a powerful performer in the musical House of Flowers, impressing himself upon some of Broadway’s biggest names:

"He was very intense and very quiet at that time. But he was very earthy. Solid, earthy like a tree."

- Lena Horne, actress


It was on the empty Broadway stages during matinee days that Mr. Ailey began rehearsing with his first group of dancers and creating his first works, inspired by childhood memories of the south.

"I think he poured his heart and soul into dance. Whatever he couldn’t express as a person he was able to express in dance."

- Dorene Richardson, dancer

Alvin Ailey, Ella Thompson Moore & Myrna White in Alvin Ailey's 'Revelations', photo by Jack Mitchell. (©) Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution

Alvin Ailey, Ella Thompson Moore, and Myrna White in Alvin Ailey's Revelations, photo by Jack Mitchell.
(©) Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution


The dances he created in those years became some of the most enduring and beloved works of American dance, in particular Revelations—also celebrating its anniversary this month—which has been acclaimed and adored by audiences all over the world for its deeply moving evocation of African American spirituals.

"It is an American phenomenon. You know, It’s like Norman Rockwell–and then there’s Alvin Ailey. I’ve probably seen it countless times and every time it’s magical, spiritual and hopeful–everything that we want ourselves to be and hope that our country will be."

- Oprah Winfrey to Entertainment Tonight


Mr. Ailey brought magic into our lives and his spirit endures in the works he gifted to the world.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Ailey.

Alvin Ailey, photo courtesy of the Ailey Archives

Alvin Ailey, photo courtesy of the Ailey Archives

*Many of these quotes are taken from Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance by Jennifer Dunning