Black History Month Feature:
Alvin Ailey - Genius Choreographer and Human Rights Activist

27 February 2014

Alvin Ailey Alvin Ailey (image source:

Black History Month is an annual observance for the remembrance of significant people and events in African-American history. It is celebrated in February in the United States and Canada. Youth for Human Rights International celebrates Black History Month in honor of all of those whose courage and determination helped secure the civil rights millions enjoy today.

With many people unaware of their rights, the question arises: who will make sure human rights are respected? To answer, we can draw inspiration from those who made a difference and helped create the human rights we have today. These humanitarians stood up for human rights because they recognized that peace and progress can never be achieved without them. Each, in a significant way, changed the world.

Alvin Ailey was one of these humanitarians, best known for popularizing modern dance and revolutionizing African-American involvement in modern dance internationally. The African-American choreographer and activist struck the world with his vision of greater equality and his genius choreographic works. The New York Times said Ailey was someone “you didn’t need to have known personally to have been touched by his humanity, enthusiasm, and exuberance and his courageous stand for multi-racial brotherhood.”

Born January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas, Ailey showed an interest in art at an early age and his experiences growing up in the rural South later inspired some of his best work.

Ailey was first touched by dance on a junior high school field trip to Los Angeles to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. This led to classes with choreographer Katherine Dunham, widely known for her dance technique that integrated many cultural styles and whose company was the first African-American troupe of dancers, actors and musicians. In 1949, Ailey collaborated with Lester Horton, whose company was racially diverse and included Native American and Japanese influences. Working with Horton significantly influenced Ailey’s later dedication to achieving equal rights in the arts.

In 1953, Ailey made his performance debut and the following year made his Broadway debut with House of Flowers by Truman Capote. He stayed in New York, studying ballet, modern dance and acting, including with modern dance innovator Martha Graham. Through the 1950s, Ailey performed on film and on and off Broadway as a dancer and actor and directed and choreographed. He founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in 1958 with the aim of wholly dedicating his work to the enrichment of American modern dance style while retaining the uniqueness of African-American culture. The company had immediate success with its first performance, Blue Suite, in 1958.

International acclaim rapidly ensued. The company was the first African-American company selected to tour Australia and Asia in President John F. Kennedy’s President’s Special International Program for Cultural Presentations. They also toured the USSR, the first American dance company to do so in 50 years, and in 1970, the company’s performance in St. Petersburg received a 20-minute ovation and rave reviews. The company’s extensive international touring earned it the title Cultural Ambassador to the World.

In 1960, Ailey’s Revelations was first performed, the story of African-American persistence and hope and the achievement of freedom from slavery. Regarded as his choreographic masterpiece, it is the best-known and most-performed modern dance work.

In 1962, Ailey transformed his company from all African-American to multiracial to reflect his vision of equality. In 1969, Ailey established a dance school that evolved to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in New York. Ailey also pioneered programs that promoted the arts in schools, particularly in low-income communities.

He received a multitude of honors, such as the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP, the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime contribution to American culture through the performing arts and several honorary doctorates.

Ailey’s exceptional achievements through his work that integrated diverse races and creeds and conveyed the rich and unique qualities of African-American culture have permanently and deeply influenced American art and culture and helped promote greater respect of freedoms and essential human rights for every person.

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Youth for Human Rights International is a nonprofit organization founded in 2001 to teach youth about human rights and inspire them to become advocates for tolerance and peace. Since its inception, it has grown into a global movement, including hundreds of groups, clubs and chapters around the world.