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Alvin Ailey and the Black Experience

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The following is a guest blog post from Dance Curator Libby Smigel and Howard University intern Jacquelyn Chin:

Jacquelyn showcases early Ailey artifacts while dancers examine Katherine Dunham’s FBI file, Judith Jamison’s Masters of Fine Arts, and Alvin Ailey’s various awards.

The Music Division was selected to host one of the Library’s three spring internships from Howard University. Dance archivist Libby Smigel is working with Jacquelyn Chin on the Division’s Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation collection.  A senior psychology major, Jacquelyn is interested in why Ailey established what has become the largest U.S. modern dance company. Just as Jackie began her internship, the Ailey company traveled to Washington for a week of performances at the Kennedy Center, and Jackie had the chance to see Ailey dances performed live – the first time for her. Now that Jackie has spent about a month looking at the scrapbooks and clippings of the company’s early years, Libby sat down with her to talk about what she is discovering.


Q:  Thinking about the performance you saw at the Kennedy Center, what particularly struck you about the range of Ailey’s choreography?

Jackie:  Well, I’m no dance major, that’s for sure – but that really is the beauty of Ailey, the ability of his dances to connect beyond discipline and into the spirit. In Black culture, dance isn’t a performance, but an event that everyone takes part in. Even though the dancers are on the stage, it’s clear that the audience is part of the show. My favorite dance was Night Creatures, just this beautiful blend of Black bodies moving together as one.[1] I think the collective nature of it mystified me. I’ve seen the Nutcracker before and immediately fell asleep (laughs), but with the Ailey repertoire, I couldn’t look away for an instant. That’s the impact dance should have – it should tell a story that anyone can connect with and can’t look away from.

“Night Creatures” entrances audiences with sultry movements to jazz music, portraying Black nightlife through flair and technique. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Q: The Ailey company ends every performance with Ailey’s iconic work Revelations, which is one of his earliest choreographies. Many people come to the performances especially to see this dance.  Did you find this dance connected to your studies in the Psychology of the Black Experience or other coursework?

“Revelations.” Ailey’s signature piece evokes hallmarks of the African spirit, conveyed through the journey of mourning and rejoice from a collective consciousness. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Jackie:  Oh, immediately. I actually downloaded the album to my phone right after and listened to it for a week straight. Part of it is the music: the church hymns reach into the soul of the Black church. Black people are traditionally very spiritual, so the practice of religion has been very much shaped by our inclination to connect with the spirit. Revelations tells a story through group dance that feels nostalgic. I think the beauty of that dance is that it came directly from Ailey’s childhood memories, which is why we relate so well to it. In my Psychology course, we tried to clearly define what exactly is “the Black Experience,” but of course there’s no one answer because it is something you feel. You see yourself and moments of your life in Revelations, and that’s a powerful feeling.

Q:  One of the first activities we did together when you began the internship was assembling an exhibit for some of the Ailey company members.  You selected a set of photographs from what is likely to be Ailey’s first professionally performed choreography (La Création du Monde, 1954), which was performed by the dance company of his mentor, Lester Horton. These photos would have been unfamiliar to the Ailey dancers.  Can you tell me what they thought of them?

Jackie:  (laughs) They actually were more interested in looking through Katherine Dunham’s FBI file. I think they were surprised the Library has that in our collection – I was too, and the notes they have on her are sometimes … taboo, you could say. I think for them it put into perspective how revolutionary both she and Ailey were in their time. They were born into this world of Jim Crow, lynchings, and very explicit racism, but made a path for people to express themselves and connect with people. So I think seeing this huge stack of papers from the FBI investigating this beautiful, talented, and intelligent Black woman reminded them of the legacy they’re continuing today: sharing art and culture to make a positive change in the world.

Q: We’re hoping you’ll contribute a blog posting on your discoveries within the Ailey papers.  Can you give us a hint on some ideas that have emerged since you began working here?

Jackie:  Well, as I’ve been reading about Ailey as a person, his life, and this process of starting and running a dance company, I couldn’t help but feel personally connected to him. My Senior Thesis research is on intersectional identity, and he was a gay, Black artist from the South who struggled with mental health issues and contracted HIV during the epidemic. At the same time, he was an extremely talented visionary who literally changed the world of dance then and for Black dancers 60 years later. I think it’s important for all of us to remember that people are more than their accomplishments, that we’re all highly complex creatures. And when we share each other’s full truths, we can better understand each other.

Reading through the reviews of his performances, I noticed a trend: people from all over the world were personally touched by his pieces. (Most of them were people who had never been introduced to modern dance, American dance, and certainly not Black American dancers.) As I began to read Thomas DeFrantz’s book Dancing Revelations, I noticed something even bigger: beyond the dances themselves, the formation of the company was built based on shared principles of African culture. Since 2019 is the Year of Return for African descendants to the continent, I thought, wow, this is perfect timing to talk about connected culture. I’m very excited about making this connection because it says something important about Black people and our strong legacy of connectedness.

[1] Night Creature, performed to music of Duke Ellington, was choreographed for the stage in 1976.


  1. Wow! I love this initiative between Howard and the Library of Congress. Seeing Ailey for the first time is a spiritual experience, and I think it’s beautiful that she talked about Ailey’s impact on Black history and culture. Hope to see more lie this!

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