On This Gay Day: Remembering Alvin Ailey

Image by Eric N Hong

Alvin Ailey died on this day in 1989 

Alvin Ailey was one of the most acclaimed choreographers of modern dance.

Ailey’s life was cut short in 1989 when he died aged just 58. He requested that Doctors announce his cause of death as terminal blood dyscrasia, so that his aging mother would not have to deal with the social stigma of announcing that his was an AIDS related death.

Ailey was born in 1931 in Texas and grew up during the great depression, a time that saw racial segregation and violence against black people. Ailey was raised by his single mother.

The family moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940’s, Ailey’s mother finding work helping the war effort.

In his early 20’s Ailey started to learn to dance at Lester Horton’s Dance School in Los Angeles, the first multi-racial dancing school in the USA.

In the early 50’s Ailey moved to San Francisco where he met Margueritte Johnson, and the two created a nightclub act called ‘Al and Rita’, Years later Johnson would change her name to Maya Angelou, and become one of America’s most recognised poets and authors.

In 1954 Ailey formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York City. At first the company only had African American dancers, but after a few years the company changed it’s approach and focused on being a multi-racial dance company.Ailey would go on to create 79 works for the company and they toured to many countries around the world.

On December 9, 1989, over 4,000 mourners attended his funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The funeral, which lasted two hours, featured his friend Maya Angelou reading an oral interpretation of her poem For Alvin Ailey, drumming by Max Roach, and reading of a statement from President George H. W. Bush.

Today Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theatre continues as one of the world’s leading modern dance companies, employing over 30 performers and commissioning new works from the world most innovative choreographers.

Find out more about Alvin Ailey at the company’s website. December 1st, the anniversary of Ailey’s death is also World AIDS Day.

OIP Staff, this post was first published in 2013 and has been updated. 

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