I Wasn’t Going To Write About Dudley Williams…

…but then I went to the performance dedicated to his memory by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on June 11.  It was the best evening of dance that I have seen in a very long time.  I will tell you why in a minute (and why each of you should run to Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater by June 21 to see for yourself), but first:  Dudley Williams (1938–2015).

I Wasnt Going To Write About Dudley Williams by Regina Paul

No one who follows dance could have missed Dudley.  He joined Alvin Ailey’s company 10 years before I first saw the company perform in 1974, and he was a star there for four decades until 2005.  If you had ever seen him do his signature solo, “I Wanna Be Ready” from Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations—live on stage or on YouTube or even on my well-worn old-fashioned videotape—you would still remember it.  It wouldn’t matter if you were a dance aficionado or my then-9-year-old son (he’s now 26) or my Sunday School class of third and fourth graders (I happened to show it to them just two weeks before Dudley’s death and, yes, I had a good reason).  And if only you had seen Dudley in the Ailey company’s 2014 New Year’s Eve performance, rocking out as a special guest performer in “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” in Revelations, you would still remember it.  He was having such a great time back on stage where he belonged, but not one bit greater than those of us who were watching and cheering in the audience.

When my daughter, Polly, entered the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program four years ago, I said one thing to her:  “Take as many classes as you can with Dudley Williams and Milton Myers.  That’s why you’re here.  You will never see the likes of them again.”  Thankfully, she did.  Both quintessential performers, Dudley and Milton had become quintessential teachers for the next generation of Ailey students and dancers.  We didn’t know then that we would lose Dudley so soon.

Last summer, Polly took a Graham class with Dudley (Dudley had danced in Martha Graham’s company before coming to Ailey)—her third class with him.  She and another dancer demonstrated for him so that the new summer professional-level students would have someone to watch, someone who did things the way Dudley wanted them done.  I had the great pleasure of observing a class, as I had done in earlier years.

Now, I am not a fan of Graham technique.  But watching Dudley teach that class was eye-opening.  He gave students the beauty and artistry of Graham, and he brought tears to my eyes.  He challenged and motivated them, and he called it as he saw it.  At one point, he admonished them with a line that went something like this:  “Listen to the music.  This isn’t an exercise class; it’s dancing.”  He was absolutely right.

At the end of the class, I went up to him and said something like this, “Watching you teach this class and seeing Polly dance for you is worth every penny of Fordham’s tuition for four years.  And that’s a lot of pennies.”  He smiled, gracious as ever.  I was dead serious.  He was worth every penny.

At the June 11 performance, the Ailey company danced.  It wasn’t just exercise.  It wasn’t just movement.  I have to admit that some of the contemporary pieces the Ailey company performs these days don’t look like dance to me.  To paraphrase something my favorite ballet teacher once said, “All movement isn’t dance, you know.”

But performing in loving memory of Dudley, it was all dance on June 11.  The most remarkable piece of the evening was the tribute performance of a solo that Alvin Ailey had choreographed for Dudley—“A Song for You” from Love Songs (1972).  According to Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison, who spoke movingly from the stage about Dudley, each of the men performing the solo that night as a five-man ensemble had been taught the solo by Dudley.  And what dancers they were—the very best the Ailey company has to offer:  Matthew Rushing, Glenn Allen Sims, Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Kirven Douthit-Boyd, and Jamar Roberts.  Each is an incredible dancer in his own right—each a powerful virtuoso performer with perfect classical lines.  The effect of the five-man ensemble was breathtaking—full of grace and love.  I hope that someone from Ailey recorded it, because it would be a best-seller.  (Note to Artistic Director Robert Battle:  If you all did not record it, do it again immediately and record it this time.  You could raise a lot of money with that recording during your next membership drive.  I am making my pledge right now—whatever it costs.)

Well, you won’t be able to see that again this season, I guess, but you can see two other pieces the company performed (check the schedule and hurry to get tickets).  Choreographed by Talley Beatty in 1960 and first performed by the Ailey company in 1964, “Toccata” from Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot was restaged by Ailey Associate Artistic Director (and former amazing Ailey dancer) Masazumi Chaya and brought back into the Ailey repertory this year.  The piece was “old school” in the best possible way.  It brought back memories of the way the Ailey dancers danced when I first saw them. It seemed so right:  group after group, men and women, 16 dancers coming and going from the stage.  There was music and there were dance steps—both a bit traditional for some tastes now perhaps, but so magnificent.  (Note to Artistic Director Robert Battle:  Don’t ever lose this piece again, for heaven’s sake.)  I’ve got to believe that Dudley, who also danced for Mr. Beatty, was smiling down for that one.

Then there was Exodus, choreographed by Rennie Harris this year and enjoying its world premiere at the June 11 performance.  The piece was “new school” in the best possible way.  Harris is all about hip-hop, and he is brilliant at it (he also choreographed Home, another masterful hip-hop piece that the Ailey company has performed).  Exodus is standing-ovation good.  And, make no mistake about it, it is dance.  Though unbelievably energetic, it is not just exercise and it is not just movement.  Hip-hop has its own dance vocabulary—just as Mr. Ailey and Mr. Beatty had theirs 50 years ago—and its own music and its own storytelling and its own emotion.  Exodus is the complete package—not unlike its classical predecessors. (And I, as a fellow Philadelphian, personally appreciated the Phillies hat that Harris wore onstage during the bows.)

So, what a night it was—the old and the new, the joy and the grief.  Polly and I wept during the performance of “A Song for You.”  Anyone who knew Dudley did—anyone who had ever sat in an audience and watched him command the stage and anyone who had ever danced in one of his classes.  Be at peace, Dudley.  I pray you are still dancing.

Honoring Hope Boykin and Alvin Ailey’s Legacy

In 1975, I started my professional career at Policy Studies in Education. A few months later, I started dance classes at The Ailey Extension (“real classes for real people”), after my real dancing days were long over. Some of my earliest classes were Horton classes—that is, Lester Horton’s modern technique, as passed down to the legendary Alvin Ailey. My favorite Horton teacher was a young Milton Myers. I knew Milton was a genius then, and the world soon found out when he joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and went on to dance and teach and choreograph around the world. After almost 40 years, I am still at Policy Studies in Education, the nonprofit educational consulting organization I head today, and I am still taking classes at The Ailey Extension. In fact, the only thing I might know more about than education is dance.

So, if you are in New York City between December 3 and January 4, go see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at New York City Center. Trust me. If you have a choice of dates, go on December 16, the night that Ailey celebrates its women. Now, truthfully, I have always been about celebrating Ailey’s men. No company in the U.S. has the deep bench of male dancers that Ailey has now and always has had. But it will be with a full heart that I will be there on December 16 to celebrate one of those Ailey women, Hope Boykin.

Honoring Hope Boykin & Alvin Ailey's Legacy by Regina Paul on Policy Studies in Education


I first met Hope a number of years ago at a Lincoln Center retrospective of films about Alvin Ailey and his groundbreaking company. I took my daughter, Polly, to hear Donna Wood speak. (Ms. Wood was one of my favorite Ailey dancers of all time, and, to my mind, no one will ever match what she did in George Faison’s breathtaking Gazelle.) After the program, I saw Hope up front and recognized her from the many times I had seen her dance with the Ailey company. Polly and I went up to her, and I said what remains true today, “You light up that stage like no one else.” She made a warm and gracious reply, and Polly and I went home delighted.

Several years later, Polly became a freshman in the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program (those of you who listen to my weekly podcast NYCollegeChat, cohosted by Marie Segares, have heard me talk about this unique dance degree, offered by a partnership of two impressive institutions). As luck would have it, that fall Hope was asked to choreograph a piece for the freshman class of bright young dancers. I was thrilled. What an opportunity for those kids, I thought.

Then my husband Jay died unexpectedly—right in the middle of Polly’s rehearsals. For a few weeks, about all Polly could make herself do was get up and go to rehearsal with Hope. I thanked God for Hope. Then Hope did something extraordinary—something my family will never forget. She choreographed a prelude to the freshman piece. It was a tribute to my husband’s loving bond with our daughter. In the new opening, Polly is moving slowly with the shadow of her father watching over her. Hope subtitled the piece, “For Jay.” Who does that? Who takes the time to watch out for one child like that? Hope Boykin.

When you go to Ailey’s December 16 performance, you will see what I mean about Hope’s lighting up the stage. You will see that huge smile and the sheer joy with which she dances the final section of Ailey’s signature piece, Revelations. Her smile reaches out into the audience in a way that just makes you smile back.

It is exactly what Mr. Ailey imagined. He was known for saying that he wanted to bring dance to the people—to make dance something that everyone can embrace and learn from and take pleasure in. When Hope dances, she brings dance to the people. She dances from her soul, and somehow she touches yours. What a way to honor Mr. Ailey’s legacy.