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“As a young girl, most of the dancers I saw were tall, skinny, and white,” writes VOX ATL reporter Elizabeth Gates. “Being able to see so many beautiful and talented dancers who looked like me, all moving in perfect harmony, was of immeasurable value.”

Photo: Members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo by Dario Calmese

 

A Teen Dancer Reflects on Seeing Alvin Ailey’s Iconic ‘Revelations’ for the First Time

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No matter what other people say, there’s something about getting good seats to a show. In this case, I didn’t just have good seats to the show, I had good seats to the show. In February, I was able to attend press night at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Exhibition, performed at the “fabulous” Fox Theatre, a well-known Atlanta landmark. The exhibition included several amazing new pieces of choreography, performed by Ailey’s dancers, such as “In a Sentimental Mood” by Jamar Roberts and “Are You in Your Feelings?” by Kyle Abraham, along with the invaluable cultural phenomenon that Ailey’s “Revelations” has become.

Prior to this event, as a biracial 16-year-old girl and dancer growing up in the South, I had only a vague understanding of who Ailey and his company were. In fact, it was my grandmother, Doris Gates, who encouraged me to go. Grandma, now in her late 70s, also had the opportunity to see Ailey when she was younger, as did some of her friends. I found this out recently as I was examining one of our family heirlooms: a full-size, monochromatic, painting of Judith Jamison in Ailey’s “Cry.” 

Needless to say, this sparked a curiosity in me that I couldn’t quite let go of. I began to research Ailey and learned quite a bit. Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) was one of the most famous modern choreographers of the 20th century. As a Black (and later, outed as a gay man), he grew up poor in a small town in segregated Texas, which he later drew on as inspiration for his dances. He began studying dance before he turned 20. In the late 1950s, he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, an integrated modern dance company that was key in creating a name for modern dance and contributing to American culture. Through his work and the cultural influence he held, he received numerous accolades and awards and founded the Ailey School of Dance.

As I sat down during the second act, bubbling with anticipation and excitement from what I had seen so far, I attempted to mentally prepare myself for “Revelations.” There was no way I could’ve adequately done so. As 32 diverse dancers bounced, floated, and flew across the stage with seemingly effortless grace, I was mesmerized. 

Other audience members cheered when a dancer did something that, to an ordinary onlooker, might seem to be the most impressive, such as split jumps, lifts, or extraordinarily fast turns. These were only the cherry on top of a work of incredible balance and control, combined with emotion expressed so well I would’ve guessed some of the accredited dancers also had the names of various acting schools printed neatly on their resumes. These dancers had command of every muscle in their bodies, including their faces. 

“Revelations,” Choreographer: Alvin Ailey, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Credit Photo: ©Paul Kolnik

As the most-seen modern dance work in the world, “Revelations,” was penned, figuratively speaking, in remembrance of Ailey’s childhood in his Texan Baptist church. Ailey, who believed that African-American cultural heritage was something to be treasured, articulates that perfectly in this ballet. In a series of about 9 dances, Ailey implements traditionally Black songs, song-sermons, and spirituals to create moods, movements, and ideas that range from slow to fast, from sorrowful to joyful, from reserved to wild, and from rousing to grieving. Combined with creative choreography that seems to combine modern dance with elements of pure ballet and all of that blended with elements of Black culture, creates a truly meaningful experience. As someone who is not normally emotionally affected by performances, I found myself moved to the point of tears. 

I had some time later to reflect on what made “Revelations” so particularly stirring for me. The incredible dancing was invaluable, and so was the choreography and being able to see who Ailey was through it. However, it was that the performance was personal that made the difference to me.

As a young girl, most of the dancers I saw were tall, skinny, and white…not to mention the issues with hair representation. Being able to see so many beautiful and talented dancers, all at once, who looked like me and didn’t look like me, in various ways, all moving in perfect harmony, was of immeasurable value. The music brought back many a story, passed down through my father’s side of the family, that was preserved to show me what life was like for my family members of color in different decades. 

And it wasn’t just the religious side of it, which touched my heart greatly. In the performance, I saw my great-grandmother, the church-hat-loving, change-making, daughter of a Tennessee sharecropper. I saw my great-uncle, a friend of the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. I saw my aunt, a single school teacher, singer, and media personality who grew up in the 80s. I saw my sisters, biracial girls growing up in a time where Barbies can reflect their hair types and where girls really can be anything. 

And with all of them, I saw myself, feeling incredibly blessed to live in a time where Alvin Ailey and “Revelations” not only exist, but will continue to be as influential, immersive, and important as they are. 


Press tickets for the Alvin Ailey Dance Ensemble at the Fox were graciously provided to VOX teen arts writers by BRAVE PR.

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