The Ailey School NYC

An interview with Denise Jefferson

An Interview with CAR Artist Researcher, Rachel Thorne Germond

Yes, the Ailey company comes every year to Chicago. It’s great to come back to the same city. There’s a real sense of our audience and what works – and the warm welcome that Chicago gives us.

Also, in terms of the community outreach that we do with the schools which helps to build community. One of those schools is the Chicago Academy of the Arts which is where we are holding the audition.

What do you feel is the best way to conduct a successful audition?

Well, that depends upon what your objective is - there are different kinds of auditions. In Chicago, for this audition, we are seeking young students and older students for several programs - the Summer Intensive, Certificate and Independent Study Program. We are seeking students with potential for growth.

These auditions are not as competitive as the auditions we hold in New York for our Scholarship Student program, in which we are more selective and seek the absolute strongest dancers and take fewer of them.

What will auditioners be required to do at the audition?

The requirements that we have, the credentials that we seek are mastery in Technique (executing the steps correctly with facility) and Artistry (which includes dramatic ability, musicality and interpretation).

We start with a ballet class where we are looking for the dancers’ technical ability, their flexibility, their lines and how quickly they pick up the combinations.

Then they move on to a Modern class where they learn a modern combination which demonstrates other aspects of their ability including their dramatic ability.

From this we are able to get a good sense of what each student can do.

One of the questions we ask ourselves when auditioning students for the educational programs is “Would this student be able to handle a Beginning Level class?” If so, then we could take them.

Can they audition again if you don’t take them this time?

Yes, they can come back and re-audition. That’s why it’s great that we have this relationship with Chicago, where we come back every year. If you don’t make the audition this year, you can try again next year.

You have to understand also that we are an open school – and offer a wide range of possibilities for training. In our open enrollment classes we take students starting at age 16 - and they can take any technique class.

What is the Ailey School’s philosophy and approach towards teaching dance and what is the most important message the school tries to instill in young dancers?

I don’t know if I would call it a philosophy, but we are a multi- technique school.

As the official school of the AAADT we have a very broad repertory that includes modern, ballet, jazz and fusion. An Ailey dancer has to have strong ballet, Horton, Graham and jazz. All students must have these different abilities. We are looking for students who want to be proficient in several different techniques - not just one. (Also it is great if they also have improvisational skills.) We develop and seek out students with a broad vision of dance. Students take ballet every day. I believe it is the base for all good strong dancers.

When I first trained in modern dance in New York in the early 1980’s, as a scholarship student at Mary Anthony’s studio, and also I know it was like this at other studios like Limon, Hawkins, Graham — we weren’t allowed to take class at other studios and taking ballet was even something that was looked down upon somewhat as tainting your modern technique. Things changed drastically during the late 80’s and 90’s in terms of training though and now a lot of modern dancers study ballet and at least one other modern technique along with a somatic technique, maybe Yoga or Pilates too. Things were different in the 50’s and 60’s weren’t they?

But Alvin Ailey was an iconoclast even in the 1960’s. He wanted dancers to be strong in ballet and modern (Horton and Graham). He wanted dancers with versatility. Not just ballet and modern, but also proficiency in jazz. He had a different vision even back then.

Alvin was looking for dancers with the beautiful articulate feet and legs of ballet dancers and the elegant expressive movement of modern torsos.

The school was founded in 1969 – started in Brooklyn and moved to Manhattan in 1970. The classes offered from the beginning were ballet, Horton, jazz and ethnic dance. The school was rooted in Alvin’s aesthetics. He and Pearl Lang (formerly of the Graham Company - a noted choreographer and teacher) co-founded the school.

I’d like to bring the conversation back to your relationship with Chicago and the topic of dancers in Chicago. How do the Chicago dancers (dancers trained in Chicago) suit the requirements for the Ailey School Programs and as dancers in the Company?

We have been taking dancers for years from Chicago. They typically have a training very strong in ballet and also modern here is very strong.

I know Kevin Jeff...

Deeply Rooted Productions?

Yes, he is doing some great work there (a former student of mine). Also - Joel Hall is a dear friend of mine - and he has Paul Sanasardo teaching there at the school. We have a number of ties with Chicago dance.

Also the audition we have in Chicago for our BFA program is one of the largest that we have in the United States. New York is the biggest of course, and Chicago second, L.A. third. Of course Chicago is a consolidation of the entire Midwest area, but still...

I would to like to ask you some questions about your own personal trajectory a bit. Can you describe your experience training as a young dancer in Chicago and who your mentors were? I saw in your bio that you studied with Edna McCrae.

I found this information on her in the archives of the Newberry Library by doing a Google search:

McRae, Edna L. -- Edna McRae School of Dance records, 1915-1980.

Dancer, choreographer, and teacher Edna McRae started dancing in Chicago Public Schools and studied with Andreas Pavley, Serge Oukrainsky and Adoph Bolm, among others. She operated a ballet school in Chicago from 1925 to 1964, becoming known as the grande dame of the Chicago Ballet community.

What was it like studying with her? What was the Chicago dance scene like back then?

Edna McCrae was one of the first teachers in Chicago. She, Ruth Page, and the Stone Cameron School of Ballet. Those were the big schools.

At Edna’s school we had annual Nutcrackers (the Nutcracker ballet). She was the best. Not just her teaching, she was a real task master and she demanded professionalism from the very beginning. I remember my very first class with her as a child. She took me by the hand and led me down the hall towards the classroom, stopping in front of the bathroom and telling me that I must go to the bathroom before class because I wouldn’t be allowed to leave class to go later. And that I must have my hair up and I must sew any holes or runs in my tights. She required professionalism in her students from the very beginning! Also - all the mothers of the students sat and took notes during class of the French terms for ballet steps and English translations (i.e., Tendu, Frappe, Temps de Cuisse, etc.). She encouraged and trained us in the Artistic, Technical, and Intellectual (understanding ballet terms, facings, etc).

How old were you when you started dancing?

Age 8.

And so you were studying with her through High School?

Yes. She saw talent from the beginning and moved me from the 1st year to the 3rd year right away. We would take class 4-5 times a week.

You have to understand that back then I never saw any Black ballet dancers. I saw the companies that came through Chicago: the Ballet Russes, ABT, even NYCB, and the dancers were all white. Arthur Mitchell was the only Black dancer that I knew of and at that time there really wasn’t much of a modern dance scene in Chicago. It was not as visible or strong at that time in Chicago. So at age 11, I began to question whether or not being a professional dancer could be a reality. There were no role models. So I decided I didn’t want to be a professional dancer and I went off to college in the East.

There I saw Donald McKayle in Boston and MY WORLD CHANGED. This is the way I wanted to move. He was an African-American Male - Graham-based – a rigorous training that I could relate to (highly codified like ballet) and technically strong like ballet. Also the dramatic aspect of Donald McKayle appealed to me.

Then after college, I got a scholarship at the Graham School in NYC and in a few years was dancing for Pearl Lang.

That was always the tradition in modern dance back then - the company members would teach to supplement their income. There weren’t any modern companies that could sustain their dancers for the entire year’s wages, so you would supplement your income by teaching class. All the teachers at the schools were people in the company (at the Graham school).

First I started as a substitute teacher for Pearl Lang and then started teaching my own classes. Then I had a knee injury and a four year old daughter, so I eventually stopped performing and decided to focus more on teaching.

I saw on the Web site class schedule that you are still teaching at the Ailey School!

Yes, I still teach three mornings a week – at 8:30 a.m. Level one Graham-based technique. I enjoy teaching level one because there is a broader range of students and you get to have them at the beginning of their training.

May I ask how old you are?

Let’s say I am in my 60’s.

I ask because when I was training with Mary Anthony she was in her 70’s (in the 1980’s). I found it so inspiring that she was still dancing and teaching with such zeal.

She is still teaching now! (She’s in her 90’s.)

Yes I know. It’s incredible. And so great that you are still teaching. I am in my mid 40’s and wondering if it’s possible for me to continue dancing and teaching and I see these examples and it’s inspiring.

Just don’t stop dancing. Keep yourself fit. Take care of your body.
Every day (weekday - 5 days a week) I take a ballet barre or floor barre and also I take Pilates. I do have to be more careful as I demonstrate. And I keep myself going.

Have you had to have any major surgeries?

No - just one: a knee surgery (meniscus) - and that was 30 years ago.

Also ... I want to comment that in the last 20 years there has been a movement in the dance world for dance teachers and dancers to know more about their bodies. A kind of anatomical awareness - we are incorporating aspects of dance medicine, Pilates, Gyrotonics, etc., into the warm up.

Nowadays, we are more aware as teachers of the best practices for the body -physiologically. We use this knowledge in how we break steps down to teach them and also in considering the stretches we will include in the warm up and how they relate to the combinations that will be taught in class.

We are overall much more anatomically aware as dancers and teachers.

Also, at the Ailey school we have a physical therapist working Monday to Friday four hours a day. Students pay a nominal fee to use them.

That’s great, especially for students who don’t have health insurance and who need care for their injuries.


I noticed that you offer more alternative sorts of classes in your BFA program with Fordham. I saw that Vicky Shick (from Trisha Brown company) is teaching there and that you are offering different sorts of classes than those offered at the school. It seems like this reflects some of the “anatomical awareness” you were talking about? Perhaps the BFA program is just an offshoot of the school?

No, the BFA program is an important part of the school. It is a 4 year program so we can offer more types of classes. Seniors, after 3-4 years of training in ballet, Horton and Graham are encouraged to take some classes in other techniques such as Cunningham, Taylor, Limon. Not so much Release technique though.

We do this because we are considering how to prepare dancers for jobs. How to prepare them to dance in the work of choreographers that are out there making work and will be looking for dancers.

Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview. I know you are very busy with the nationwide auditioning process. You will be in Chicago this Sunday, April 6th auditioning at the Academy of the Arts?

Yes. Looking forward to it and to coming back to Chicago for a visit.

Denise Jefferson was born in Chicago, Illinois, where she began her ballet studies with Edna L. McRae. She attended Wheaton College in Norton, MA, graduating with a B.A. in French; she then earned her M.A. in French from New York University. She was awarded a scholarship to the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance and began her professional career with the Pearl Lang Dance Company one year later. In 1974, Ms. Jefferson joined the faculty of The Ailey School and was appointed its Director in 1984.


The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was founded in 1958. Choreographer, dancer, and director Alvin Ailey played an important role in cultivating opportunities for African-American modern dancers, presenting choreography that explored a wide range of the black experience. The company’s extensive touring schedule - performing in 71 countries for roughly 21 million people - has brought them much acclaim. In 2008, Congress passed a resolution officially naming the Ailey Company to be cultural ambassadors to the world.

The Ailey School was established in Brooklyn, NY in 1969. The company and school relocated to Manhattan a year later, to a renovated church building, then moved in 1980 to four new studios in a building on Broadway. Following another move after that, in 2004 the school and first and second companies have come to find their new home in a 77,000 s.f. building located in New York’s Theater District at 405 West 55th Street. The building has 12 climate-controlled studios equipped with pianos, sprung floors, sound systems and state-of-the-art acoustics, a 294 seat Ailey Citigroup Theater; physical therapy facilities; an Ailey Boutique; a library; student and faculty lounges and administrative offices for the entire organization. The school offers extensive and intensive training for all ages - ranging in classes offered for the professional, pre-professional, to the recreational dancer.


This article was co-developed for the Chicago Artists Resource Website and Cultural Chicago E-Zine.

Published by CAR_Rachel on Wed, 05/14/2008 - 11:21am
Updated on Wed, 02/24/2016 - 1:14pm
The Ailey School NYC | Chicago Artists Resource


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