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Alvin Ailey's Dance Troupe at 45

Cover for the soundtrack to <i>Revelations</i> (V2 1999)
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Cover for the soundtrack to Revelations (V2 1999)

Next week, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will hold a gala celebration to recognize a $1-million grant from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. The money will fund scholarships for the company's next generation of stars.

The Alvin Ailey troupe is considered one of the country's premier modern dance companies, and it has a unique place in American culture. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates profiles the dance company on its 45th anniversary.

Ailey founded the troupe in 1958, envisioning dance as a way to celebrate and honor black culture. Judith Jamison -- once Ailey's star dancer and muse -- took over as the company's artistic director when Ailey died in 1989 at age 58.

In many ways, Jamison says, Ailey dancers are like all dancers -- but with an extra mandate. "You have to realize that you're stepping on sacred ground when you're a dancer," she says. "It's a spiritual space."

The movements of Ailey dancers are characterized as smooth, controlled and deliberate, and their productions are often flavored with dances from the African Diaspora. In her prime, Jamison was known by dance aficionados for the liquid perfection of her movement -- but she says she's amazed by the abilities of the latest Ailey's dancers.

Jamison says her dancers have what Ailey would have called "blood memories" -- deep-rooted cultural impulses that have been transmitted, unspoken, through generations. Ailey saw dance as a way to retain the collective blood memories of the African-American community. His rise to prominence in dance dovetailed with the rise of the Black Arts movement.

Productions such as the signature Ailey work Revelations pay homage to how faith sustained black Americans through difficult times. "It set a tone for what is human in all of us, no matter where you come from," Jamison says of Revelations. We've done that piece all over the world, and everyone understands exactly what it's about -- it's humanity, it's triumph, and what it is to be human."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.