As you can imagine, the professional dance world pre-1950s wasn’t terribly diverse. So when Alvin Ailey started his own all-black company of modern dancers, he both enriched the dance world with greater diversity and brought African-American cultural expression to a medium that was steeped in European tradition.
By nature socially-minded, Ailey made it a point to reach out to the community to share his work and stories through dance. Even after the great choreographer’s death, the company carries on his legacy. Most recently, it partnered with the Detroit Opera House, visited Mt. Clemens Junior High School and taught students from grades seven to twelve its special “Revelations” curriculum.
“It takes Alvin Ailey’s signature work and aligns it with several core academic subjects, primarily language arts and social studies,” master teacher Nasha Thomas-Schmitt explains. The students also create their own movements and learn some original choreography from the work.
Revelations tells the story of tenacity and the movement of African American people from slavery and oppression to freedom. “It still has a lot of connections to what’s going on in the world socially, culturally and artistically,” says Thomas-Schmitt. “The children are learning about Mr. Ailey and his struggles and how he came to create this incredible organization. They’re seeing how the work can be very similar to their own lives.”
Although the company’s stays are short, usually just five days, the impressions left on the students are indelible. “I think what I have seen, which continues to amaze me … is how I can go into a school in such a short period of time, in an environment I’m new to, and have these young people embrace me and they feel so comfortable and connect so strongly that they can share their stories and histories,” Thomas-Schmitt says.
Students are encouraged to examine their own family histories, especially during the late 50s and early 60s, when the Ailey Company was launched and Revelations was created. Often it’s the students with personal struggles who really open up and connect with the work.
Although dance is obviously at the forefront of the Revelations curriculum, Thomas-Schmitt is quick to point out the seminar isn’t just about dance. They create a platform for creative expression of all kinds, and more than that, it’s about the lifestyle dancers embrace. “A lot of young people are inundated with information and material. Everything is fast and we have all these gadgets they play with, and we’re not as active as we used to be,” Thomas-Schmitt says. “I think the arts, and especially dance, gives them the tools to learn how to finish something. When they start a dance class, they must finish. The process is about having discipline, follow through, working hard and being dedicated. It’s about finding a way to overcome challenges.”
Nada Thomas-Schmitt and her fellow Ailey dancers have been teaching the Revelations workshop for almost six years and, with such an enduring theme, it seems they’ll be connecting with the community over Revelations for years to come.
“I think what has impacted me the most is how the young people relate to Mr. Ailey and his story. Our work and focus is on making connections,” Thomas-Schmitt says. “I think Mr. Ailey had a way of making his artists feel important. My hope is every young person I come into contact with feels special, they know there’s something special about them and that they, like Mr. Ailey, can make their dreams come true knowing it doesn’t happen by osmosis. They have to understand things are possible, but you must work hard.”
If you’re interested in seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater perform Revelations, the company will be performing at the Detroit Opera House this weekend Saturday evening or Saturday and Sunday matinee performances. You can find tickets here.