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The Ailey Extension

For many, attending dance classes is a way to form and nurture close bonds with friends, but what happens when we share those uplifting—and at times challenging---experiences with a family member? In the case of two Ailey Extension instructors, bringing their mothers to dance classes helped to strengthen their bonds and positively transformed the health and well-being of their moms.

Ailey Extension instructor Karen Arceneaux first started dancing when she joined a high school dance team. Despite her mother Catherine Gipson’s warnings about choosing a career in the arts, Karen switched her college major from chemistry to dance after seeing girls in pink tights leaving the dance building. “My mother finally decided to support me after my final performance in college,” she explained. “From there, I went on to get a certificate at The Ailey School, became an administrator, and I eventually started my own dance company. She has been my biggest fan through all of it.”

Now, Karen devotes part of her time to teaching Zumba® Fitness and Horton technique to students of all ages and abilities at the Ailey Extension. Catherine soon went from cheering in the audience to courageously signing up for one of her daughter’s heart-pumping and fast paced Zumba classes back in 2011. Karen reflected on how her sheer persistence to get her mother to take a class ultimately strengthened their relationship. She recalls, “It used to be such a fight to get my mom to come to classes. I would offer all the time to pick her up and take her to class, but she never came. Until one day, she did. Now she’s hooked, and not a Saturday will pass without her coming to Ailey with me.” While some may think it could be strange to have one’s own mother as a student in class, for Karen, having her in the studio has changed the classroom energy and has positively impacted all of her students. “It’s great to have my mom in class because I get to say, ‘If my mom can do it, so can you!,’” she explained. “It’s motivating for women her age because they encourage each other.”

Karen with her mother, Catherine, at the Ailey Studios.

Creator and instructor of the Masala Bhangra® Workout, Sarina Jain, was first introduced to dance as a young child. Her parents, both of Indian descent, made an effort to share their heritage with both their daughters by participating in activities within their local Indian community. “By default, my sister and I loved to dance,” she recalled. “So we were constantly doing the Bollywood, Bhangra and Raas/Garba dancing.”

Inspired by the vibrant cultural dance forms she learned in her youth, Sarina later turned her love for dance into a career by creating the Masala Bhangra Workout and, with the support of her mother, her work blossomed. “I don’t think my mother, Saroj, realized what I was doing at first, but she absolutely supported me in this project of mine that is now 15 years old and is one of the top five workouts in America today.”

Sarina with her mother, Saroj, at the Ailey Studios.

Sarina attributes her passion for her dance and fitness movement, in part, to the personal challenges and setbacks she, her sister and her mother have experienced. “My mother was 40 when my father passed away. The three of us have had each other’s backs ever since. My sister and I have always encouraged our mom to do something and to continue to live. It was one of those things where you shouldn’t die because he died as well. So we’ve encouraged her to let go, live, and enjoy things that she had always done.”

Sarina’s support of her mother reaped new rewards this year when Saroj took part in her first dance performance, the Ailey Extension’s World Dance Celebration. “What’s beautiful is that she turned 60 this year,” Sarina added.  While Saroj was at first hesitant to participate and doubted her ability to follow through, Sarina’s coaching showed Saroj how persistence can make any goal achievable. “I said to my mom, ‘You’ve come all this way, and you’ve come too far to give up.’ I’m so glad she was able to push through to finish three shows. She was exhausted, but she brought so much light to everybody else and had a blast doing it.”

Following the World Dance Celebration, Saroj was so inspired by her newfound drive that she pushed to reach another milestone—and completed all the levels of Masala Bhangra instructor training. She offered some words of encouragement to others: “If you really want to do it, don’t let anything get in your way. I used to feel funny dancing with my daughter and her friends, but when I started, it was so fun! It was an accomplishment, and I was like, ‘Wow, I did it!’ Basically, don’t look for any reasons not to!”

Sarina Jain teaching Masala Bhangra at the Ailey Extension. Photo by Kyle Froman

Sarina shared her own words of wisdom for mothers and daughters who are hesitant to start dancing or exercising: “Whether you are 30 or 60, every woman wants to feel beautiful. Every woman wants to feel sexy! I’ve seen this with all my students, and I’ve seen this throughout my own family—everyone wants to look good. In order to look good, you’ve got to get up and exercise in some way, shape, or form. It is a great experience for mothers and daughters to go work out together, and to experience something totally out of their comfort zone. You’d be surprised to see what emotions come out of taking class together.”

Share an unforgettable experience with your mom at a Mother/Daughter SharQui Bellydance Class with Sharon Zaslaw on Sat May 9, or a Mother’s Day West African class with Nimatoulaye Camara on Sun May 10 from 5-6:30pm.

Interviews conducted by Christina Daniels. Blog article by Chandra Jackson.

This month, the Ailey Extension celebrates 10 years of "Real Classes for Real People." In April 2005, the Joan Weill Center for Dance opened its doors, furthering Mr. Ailey’s mission to make dance accessible to everyone. Since its inception, the Extension has welcomed more than 86,000 students from around the world.

“This program was built on the legacy of Alvin Ailey, so it was imperative not only to have phenomenal teachers but instructors that could promote the importance of Mr. Ailey’s legacy while teaching dance to the community,” said Lisa Johnson-Willingham, Director of the Extension since 2011. “The majority of our instructors today have been a part of the Ailey family for more than a decade, so they can bring with them the spirit of this organization and share it with our students.”

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Top, left to right: Vic DiMonda (Theater Dance), Ailey Extension Director Lisa Johnson-Willingham, and Tiba (Capoeira). Bottom, left to right: Maguette Camara (West African), Quenia Ribeiro (Samba/Afro-Brazilian), TweetBoogie (hip-hop), and Jonathan Lee (hip-hop). Photos by Chandra Jackson

To help celebrate 10 years of dance, we spoke with longstanding instructors Robin Dunn, Maguette Camara, Vic DiMonda, TweetBoogie, Jonathan Lee, Quenia Ribeiro, and the incomparable Joan Peters (a former Ailey dancer), all of whom helped to start this program, about their experiences at the Ailey Extension.

Robin Dunn was the first to introduce hip-hop dance to the Ailey Studios and played an important role in introducing notable hip-hop pioneers Mr. Wiggles and Skeeter Rabbit of the legendary Electric Boogaloos to the Ailey Extension, along with current instructors TweetBoogie and Jonathan Lee. “My goal has been for my students to learn about the true essence of hip-hop,” she says.  “I want them to be comfortable and inspired to learn more.

If you’ve ever seen The Oprah Winfrey Show, you may have caught instructor TweetBoogie teaching Oprah hip-hop, and it’s no surprise that one of the dance instructor’s other cherished moments involves a member of Oprah’s entourage. “One of my favorite memories was when Gayle King took my class,” she recalled. “I was so surprised. She opened the door and I just stared at her thinking, ‘No wait…that can’t be her.’ I had to convince myself it wasn’t so I wouldn’t freak out—I had to keep my swag up.”


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Director Lisa Johnson-Willingham, in red dress, with members of the Ailey Extension staff. Photo by Chandra Jackson

During its early years, the Ailey Extension offered a smaller number of class options with instructors from the prestigious Ailey School, former dancers from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and other outstanding dance teachers. Today, the Extension offers over 80 adult dance and fitness classes per week in 23 different techniques, as well as student performance workshops, master classes, a kids & teens program, group visits, and private classes for people from all over the world. “There have been many changes that have occurred at the Extension, but what keeps it special is that it makes everyone feel empowered to do whatever they want to do. It’s where you come and feel like you belong—even if you just started,” noted West African instructor Maguette Camara.

For the past 10 years, hip-hop instructor Jonathan Lee has been a constant on Thursdays and Saturdays, teaching the latest moves to beginner students with his unique and fun personality. Jonathan notes that he loves seeing the growth and development of his students. “I don't have just one memorable moment with the Extension but several. It's actually seeing the growth and development of the students of the Extension. Especially when the students have taken your class for a while, just observing the transformation that occurs is quite miraculous to watch.”


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Horton class at the Ailey Extension in 2005. Photo by Arthur Coopchick

Samba/Afro-Brazilian instructor Quenia Ribeiro echoed Jonathan’s sentiments, stating, “It is so hard to say what my favorite memory has been when I have shared so many great moments with all my students. I think the students that frequent my class find that I create a space where they can really be comfortable to express themselves. Some students refer to the Ailey Extension and Samba class at their church, temple, or therapy,” she said. “During one of our first parades around the block for the ‘Celebrate Brazil’ workshop, it was wonderful to see the looks of surprise and excitement on the faces of people who live and work in the neighborhood generated by our dancing, drums, and costumes. Also, every year, the World Dance Celebration gives students the opportunity to show their skills and all that they learn in a performance.”

“The beauty of the Extension is when I see students from all walks of life mingle with Broadway dancers and dancers who aspire to dance,” says Theater Dance instructor Vic DiMonda. “Both groups are enriched by each other.” As Dunham instructor Joan Peters puts it, “We are all so lucky to dance here. The Ailey Extension is not just a dance program.  It’s a way of life.”

Inspired to take a class? For class schedules, descriptions, prices & fees, and more, visit

Blog article by Chandra Jackson.

Known for her graceful presence and gracious demeanor, former professional ballet dancer Deborah Wingert is no stranger to the Ailey organization. For several years, she has taught company ballet classes for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and at The Ailey School, and now she brings her expertise to the Ailey Extension. Read on to find out how performing, choreographing and teaching for decades have influenced her both in and outside of the studio.

Deborah Wingert knows what it means to be busy. She jokes that she has been going full steam since the day she started dancing. By the time she was fifteen, her hard work was realized when George Balanchine asked her to become an apprentice with New York City Ballet (NYCB). By age sixteen, she was dancing long hours as a company member. During her fifteen years with NYCB, Deborah danced over twenty-five principal, soloist and featured roles. A principal and soloist dancer with numerous nationally acclaimed companies, she has also performed for film and television and is a prize-winning choreographer.

"I like to keep busy, and I think it’s helped my daughter because I have shown her what a career is about," she says of her aspiring actress teenager. "It’s not a job for me. It’s a career, so I’m really blessed.”

Deborah teaching ballet class.

Having already lived a very full life by the age of sixteen, Deborah remarks on how the experience influenced her career as teacher. “I stayed at City Ballet my whole career, and what that allowed me to do is become a specialist. I didn’t intend to, but it allowed me to specialize in Balanchine. So now, I am beginning to study the Ailey repertory, and see what makes an Ailey ballet tick besides Revelations and all the rest.” From an early age, Deborah’s self-motivation to learn more about the influence of history on dance led her to become a teacher.

Deborah makes sure to bring her knowledge of dance history, experience, and technique into all of her classes, whether she’s teaching some of the best dancers in the world with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, pre-professional students at The Ailey School, or open class takers at the Ailey Extension.  She explained, “I’m interested in the historical nature of it all. I like knowing where it all comes from. For me, the overlapping [of dance history] allows me to prove the relevance of ballet. I don’t want to do it anymore if it’s not relevant. I keep finding here at Ailey that they ask me questions in a Company class – experienced, learned dancers say, ‘Ok, Ms. D, when you’re doing this, what about this?’ I like to explain to them how things relate.”