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The Pioneering Women of Ailey

Posted November 1, 2023

We owe a great deal to the many people who have helped the Ailey organization thrive throughout its 65-year history. From the time Alvin Ailey founded this Company, he relied on close friends and confidants who believed in him and his mission of delivering dance back to the people.  

Most notably, Carmen de Lavallade, Judith Jamison, Denise Jefferson, and Sylvia Waters stood by him, inspired him, and ultimately left their own mark on Ailey history. Here’s why these women were so important to Ailey and why we still honor them today. 

Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade went to high school in Los Angeles with Alvin Ailey, where it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Mr. Ailey was always enamored with her beauty and loved watching her dance. She studied modern dance with Lester Horton and eventually Mr. Ailey did too. They both were invited to become members of Horton’s company, and when he unexpectedly passed away, Alvin led the group.  
However, they didn’t stay in California much longer because they were invited to Philadelphia to try out for the Broadway show House of Flowers, written by Truman Capote. They got the job, and it was during this time that Ms. de Lavallade met her husband Geoffrey Holder, who was also in the cast. The move to New York to perform the show on Broadway allowed Ms. de Lavallade to soar, becoming a star on stages and screens. She continued performing in productions across New York City and acting in movies, but always remained close with Mr. Ailey. When Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater toured Asia in 1962 he invited her along, and even billed the Company as de Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Company. This double billing helped to draw larger audiences to this newly established dance company and helped secure the international success of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. 

As a performer and choreographer, Ms. de Lavallade had quite an illustrious career and she remains close with everyone at the Ailey company. So, it was no surprise when in 2000 Artistic Director Judith Jamison, asked her to create a new work for the Company. The piece, titled Sweet Bitter Love, is a lyrical, poignant duet danced to classic ballads by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. Ms. de Lavallade is a wonderful storyteller and performer that, at 92 years of age, remains an inspiration to many of the Ailey dancers and audiences around the world. 

Judith Jamison

Judith Jamison

After seeing Judith Jamison dance when she was auditioning for Donald McKayle, Alvin Ailey tracked her down by getting her phone number from Carmen de Lavallade and asked her to join Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The rest, as they say, is history. Ms. Jamison debuted with the Company on October 30, 1965, and quickly became one of Mr. Ailey’s most prolific muses, with the ballet Cry shooting her to stardom.  

After dancing for Mr. Ailey for 15 years, she went on to star on Broadway, appeared as a guest artist with ballet companies all over the world, and formed her own company, The Jamison Project. In 1989, Mr. Ailey asked her to return to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and succeed him as Artistic Director. During her 21 years of leadership (1989-2010), she put her heart and soul into Ailey just as she had done as a performer. As a leader, she took the Company to unprecedented heights—including two historic engagements in South Africa and a 50-city global tour that celebrated the Company’s 50th anniversary. In 2005 her idea of a permanent home for the Ailey organization was realized with the opening of The Joan Weill Center for Dance, named after beloved Chairman Emerita Joan Weill. 

Even before she succeeded Mr. Ailey as Artistic Director of the Ailey company, she was choreographing work on the Ailey dancers. The first piece she made, Divining (1984), is still frequently performed. While leading the Company, she also choreographed Forgotten Time (1989), Hymn (1993), HERE . . .NOW. (commissioned for the 2002 Cultural Olympiad), Love Stories(with additional choreography by Robert Battle and Rennie Harris, 2004), and Among Us (Private Spaces: Public Places)(2009).  

Today, as the Artistic Director Emerita of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ms. Jamison continues to play a vital role in the mentorship of Ailey’s artists and leaders. She’s one of the few people left that knew Mr. Ailey and continues to guide the organization by upholding Alvin Ailey’s mission of delivering dance back to the people. 

Denise Jefferson

Denise Jefferson

Denise Jefferson left her mark on the Ailey legacy by shaping the training and trajectory of the thousands of students who she trained at The Ailey School. She grew up dancing in Chicago, but never saw herself becoming a performer, because she had never seen a ballerina that wasn’t white. However, when she moved to New York City after college she continued her dance studies and was awarded a scholarship to the Martha Graham School. 

She joined the faculty of The Ailey School in 1974 at the invitation of Pearl Lang, who helped Alvin Ailey found the school in 1969. Ms. Jefferson was appointed the School’s Director in 1984, a post she held until her death in 2010.  

As the Director of the School, she was always looking for ways to improve the training and the programs they offered. This led her to the idea of starting a Bachelor of Fine Arts program for dancers so that they wouldn’t have to choose between dance and college, as so many have had to do. She regularly ran into Edward Bristow, then dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center, and one morning they decided to make it happen. They followed through and put together a planning committee, presented the idea to their respective organizations, and within two years had the program up and running. The Ailey/Fordham BFA Program in Dance, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is an important part of Ms. Jefferson’s legacy. Her influence also lives on in her daughter, Francesca Harper, who is the Artistic Director of Ailey II. The Ailey circle truly never ends.  

Sylvia Waters

Sylvia Waters

Sylvia Waters, joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1968 and went on numerous national and international tours with the Company. In 1975, after a successful career performing, Alvin Ailey personally selected Ms. Waters to be Artistic Director of the Ailey Repertory Ensemble (now Ailey II). She gracefully held the role for 38 years and used her time to seek out and give up-and-coming choreographers the opportunity to create on the young, fearless Ailey II dancers. She has since stepped down from her post, but remains an ever-present mentor as Ailey II Artistic Director Emerita, guiding current Artistic Director Francesca Harper and the passionate dancers in the company. 

Outside of the dance studio, Ms. Waters works closely with the Ailey archivist to preserve the artifacts of Alvin Ailey’s legacy and Company. Most recently, she finished Portrait of Ailey, a seven-part docuseries that tells the story of Alvin Ailey’s life using his own words from archival audio and video interviews, along with footage from rehearsals, performances, and more. 

The Ailey organization would not be what or where it is today without the significant contributions of these four amazing women. This New York City Center season, we’re honoring them during the “Pioneering Women of Ailey” program on December 19, with special ballets performed in tribute to their individual beauty, strength, and dedication to Ailey. 

Support Ailey 

Make a gift to the Jamison Women of Ailey Fund to inspire the next generation of women artists and leaders to carry on the Ailey legacy, just as she has done.

Make a gift to The Ailey School to provide scholarships for talented young students with a promising future in dance.