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.
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.