"Alvin Ailey Taught Me To Stand Up Straight": AAADT Celebrates 50 Years of "Revelations" at Abyssinian Baptist Church

(photo by Andrew Eccles)

Today, Ariel and I went to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which is currently celebrating its 200th anniversary. The church was founded in 1808 when it separated from a larger demonimation because of racial segregation.

But today Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was also celebrating its 50th anniversary, today’s event part of its faith-based honoring of the spiritual heritage of Mr. Ailey’s life work, which took place in churches throughout New York and the country, including Rogers, Texas, Alvin Ailey’s own hometown. We were very lucky: at our event, Judith Jamison, artistic director and former dancer extraordinare with Ailey attended and gave a brief speech about Mr. Ailey’s roots in the church. I also spotted a couple of Ailey dancers in the audience, including the illustrious Renee Robinson.

It was a blast! Former Ailey dancer Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, who heads the Ailey Camp outreach program, giving dance lessons to inner-city youth, trained several children in the congregation to dance the opening of “Revelations” — the “I’ve Been ‘Buked” section (pictured above; also see video here, beginning section). So as the choir sang that song, the children walked down the aisles, dressed in the same styled costumes as the original Ailey dancers, up to the pulpit, where they danced — doing everything perfectly! I almost started giggling when the tallest boy in the center reached upward with his arms, leading his “flock.” It was adorable, and he was right on!

The choir also sang “Rock A My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” my favorite song in “Revelations” (see the last section of that above video). There was no music here; rather the different choral sections provided the harmony, and the melody. They sang repeated choruses, in so many different chords; it was amazing.

The regular minister, Dr. Rev. Calvin O. Butts, allowed one of the junior ministers, Rev. Eboni Marshall, to give the sermon, since she had previously danced with Alvin Ailey. Her sermon was themed “The Show Must Go On,” the message being mainly that no matter how bad things get for you, your show’s not over and God is there for you. She talked about what being a member of Alvin Ailey had meant to her. She said it “taught me, first of all, to stand up straight.” The audience cheered. She said Ailey also gave her a solid work ethic, self-respect and discipline, and taught her that no matter what happened, no matter how much her body ached, no matter how many last-minute set problems the troupe encountered, etc., the show simply had to go on, no excuses.

This was my first time at an African-American church, and I just have to say, it was so much more lively (to make a huge understatement!) than any white church I’ve been to (at least in Arizona). Rev. Marshall spoke theatrically and emphatically, and the audience was very participatory, shouting “Oh Yes!”‘s, and “Um-HUMS!”, and “Oh, He’s coming!”s throughout, fists pounding the air. It was great! Back home, people sit there in near complete silence and the minister talks in the droning pitch of a shrink.

Afterward, Ariel and I went around the corner to a small but down-home-looking restaurant for southern food, called Miss Maud’s SpoonBread. We were going to go to the famous Sylvia’s, but then I realized I was hungry and wasn’t in a mood to wait in a huge line with other “Harlem tourists” and pay a bundle, and small local joints are often better anyway. I’m glad we decided on Miss Maud’s because they had a nice spacious booth, the likes of which I haven’t seen in Manhattan, and it was just a cozy little place. I had my first brunch of fried chicken and waffles, which was delicious, albeit enormous. They had biscuits, just like the biscuits ‘n gravy I’ve had in North Carolina visiting Mom, but these were tiny and shaped like hearts. I thought they were cute, so I had to snap a picture… Anyway, it was a most excellent day!


  1. Non white churches are a very different experience, ain’t they?

    What a great report and fabulous experience!

  2. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm….biscuits always remind me of when I lived (briefly) in Houston. Biscuits & gravy. And grits. And banana pancakes. Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill (cheap) wine. A joint. Acoustic Jackson Browne on the turntable. A few good friends. The beach at Galveston not far away. So good to remember…

  3. AH! Next time you do something awesome like that — tell me!

    I love black church.

  4. I had so much fun, thanks for inviting me!

  5. I actually attended an African-American church in college every week. 🙂 It’s so amazing to read about the anniversary after I got to experience them! It sounds like a great experience.

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