Pioneering Women of Ailey

Alvin Ailey owes a great deal to the many people who have helped the organization thrive throughout its 65-year history. From the time Alvin Ailey founded his Company, he relied on close friends and confidants who believed in him and his mission of delivering dance back to the people. Four special women—Carmen de Lavallade, Judith Jamison, Denise Jefferson, and Sylvia Watersstood by him, inspired him, and ultimately left their own mark on Ailey history.


Carmen de Lavallade 

Carmen de Lavallade went to high school in Los Angeles with Alvin Ailey. She studied modern dance with Lester Horton and eventually Mr. Ailey did, too. They both became members of Horton’s company, and when he unexpectedly passed away, Alvin led the group.  
Soon after, they were invited to Philadelphia to audition for the Broadway show House of Flowers. They got the job, and Ms. de Lavallade met her husband Geoffrey Holder, who was also in the cast. The move to New York to perform the show on Broadway allowed Ms. de Lavallade to soar, becoming a star on stages and screens.  She continued performing in New York City and acting in movies, but always remained close with Mr. Ailey. When Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater toured Asia in 1962 he invited her along, and even billed the Company as de Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Company.

As a performer and choreographer, Ms. de Lavallade had an illustrious career, and at 92 years of age, she remains an inspiration to many of the Ailey dancers and audiences around the world. 


Judith Jamison 

After seeing Judith Jamison audition for choreographer Donald McKayle, Alvin Ailey tracked her down and asked her to join Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ms. Jamison debuted with the Company on October 30, 1965, and quickly became one of Mr. Ailey’s most prolific muses, with the ballet Cry shooting her to stardom.  

After dancing for Mr. Ailey for 15 years, she starred on Broadway, appeared as a guest artist with ballet companies around the world, and formed her own company, The Jamison Project. In 1989, Mr. Ailey asked her to return to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and succeed him as Artistic Director. During her 21 years of leadership (1989-2010), she put her heart and soul into Ailey and took the Company to unprecedented heights. 

Today, as the Artistic Director Emerita of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ms. Jamison continues to play a vital role in the mentorship of Ailey’s artists and leaders. She’s one of the few people left who knew Mr. Ailey, and she remains a guiding force for the entire Ailey organization.


Denise Jefferson 

Denise Jefferson left her mark by shaping the training and trajectory of the thousands of students who she trained at The Ailey School. She grew up dancing in Chicago, but never saw herself becoming a performer, because she had never seen a ballerina who wasn’t white.

She joined the faculty of The Ailey School in 1974 at the invitation of Pearl Lang, who helped Alvin Ailey found the school in 1969. Ms. Jefferson was appointed the School’s Director in 1984, a post she held until her death in 2010.  

As Director, she constantly sought ways to improve the School’s training and program offerings. This led her to the idea of starting a BFA program for dancers so that they wouldn’t have to choose between dance and college. She worked closely with Edward Bristow, then dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center, and got the program up and running within two years. The Ailey/Fordham BFA Program in Dance, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, is an important part of Ms. Jefferson’s legacy. Her influence also lives on in her daughter, Francesca Harper, who is the Artistic Director of Ailey II.


Sylvia Waters 

Sylvia Waters joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1968 and went on numerous national and international tours with the Company. In 1975, after a successful performing career, Ms. Waters answered Mr. Ailey’s invitation to be Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (now Ailey II). She gracefully held the role for 38 years and used her time to discover new talent and give up-and-coming choreographers the opportunity to create on the young, fearless Ailey II dancers. Now, as Ailey II Artistic Director Emerita, she remains an ever-present mentor, guiding current Artistic Director Francesca Harper and the company’s passionate dancers. 

Ms. Waters also works closely with the Ailey archivist to preserve the artifacts of Alvin Ailey’s legacy and Company. Most recently, she finished Portrait of Ailey, a seven-part docuseries that tells the story of Alvin Ailey’s life. 

The Ailey organization would not be what or where it is today without the significant contributions of these women. The December 19 program, “Pioneering Women of Ailey”, will pay tribute to their beauty, strength, and dedication to Ailey. 


This article was provided courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

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