The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is in the middle of their five-month-long tour and will be performing this week at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Before the iconic modern dance troupe takes center stage in downtown L.A., they made a stop at Rancho Dominguez Prep School in March. As part of their annual tour, Alvin Ailey works with local schools like Rancho Dominguez to teach students about modern dance and the company itself.
Middle schoolers learn the dance steps and also learn about Alvin Ailey, who was black, as well as being one of the most prolific dancers and choreographers of the 20th century. He grew up in the Great Depression in segregated Texas as a black man, and in 1942 he and his mother moved to L.A., where he met choreographer Lester Horton. After joining Horton’s dance troupe, he moved to New York, starred on Broadway and established Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.
The troupe itself serves as another inspiration for the students. Alvin Ailey Dance Theater was one of the first all-black modern dance troupes in the U.S. The world-class company fundamentally changed the American dance landscape.
“Especially in ESC South, we have a really high number of really diverse students, and I think it’s important for young children to see these role models and the impact they’ve had in the world,” says Ruth Torres, the arts integration specialist for the L.A. Unified of the ESC South.
The teachers and dancers hope the students will look to the dance troupe and Alvin Ailey as role models, which these students may need. Rancho Dominguez Prep is a Title 1 school, meaning it receives federal assistance. At the school, 81 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged in some way, and the school has had a history of fights breaking out and teacher misconduct allegations.
But according to Nasha Thomas Schmitt, the national director of the Alvin Ailey Camp and the master teacher in arts and education, that makes it even more necessary for Alvin Ailey to be here.
“Alvin Ailey did not let his circumstances determine what he wanted to set out and accomplish," she says. "And a lot of kids are used to being shuffled around. But it is about taking advantage of the resources you have in your community — the resources you have in your school."
As part of the residency, the students are learning Alvin Ailey’s iconic dance "Revelations." It traces the African-American experience from slavery to freedom.
Ailey called these struggles his blood memories — memories that run through your veins. For Ailey, going through these pivotal experiences can create lasting impressions and form you as a person.
“There’s nothing like meeting a child and having a 90-minute interaction for four days, and that last day, they’re saying ‘I love you.’ And you don’t want to leave, and you know you’ve made an impact. And you have made a change, and you have created a blood memory just like Alvin Ailey had his blood memories,” Schmitt says.
Even in their short stay at Rancho Dominguez Prep, Alvin Ailey has already created those blood memories. For 13-year-old Sherod Brown, Alvin Ailey’s choreography delivered “moves that I’ve never seen throughout my life — ever before, and I feel inspired, proud and fantastic, because their moves were just mind blowing, to be honest."
And the blood memory continues. The students at Rancho Dominguez Prep School will get to see an exclusive performance of Alvin Ailey's national tour this week.