100 Heroes: Alvin Ailey

The gay man who became a groundbreaking choreographer.

100 Heroes: Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey was an American dancer whose legacy has helped shape contemporary dance.

Early life

Born in Texas in 1931, in 1942 Ailey’s mother moved the family to Los Angeles.

Ailey didn’t become serious about dance until 1942 when he was introduced to dance teacher Lester Horton.

In 1953, Ailey joined Horton’s dance company on a full-time basis. Soon after, Horton died, and Ailey assumed the role of Artistic Director of the company.


In 1958, Ailey launched his own dance company – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Ailey’s choreography was a dynamic and vibrant mix growing out of his training in ballet, modern dance, jazz, and African dance techniques. Ailey insisted upon a complete theatrical experience, including costumes, lighting, and make-up.

Ailey created 79 pieces for his company, and the company’s repertoire has since expanded to include pieces from other choreographers.

Personal life

Elements of homo-eroticism can be interpreted in much of Ailey’s choreography, but he was relatively private about his personal life.

Ailey died in 1989, aged 58.

To spare his mother the social stigma of his death from HIV/AIDS – which was significant at the time of his death – he asked his doctor to announce that he had died of terminal blood dyscrasia.

Follow Gareth Johnson on Twitter