I received word yesterday that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Denise Jefferson passed away over the weekend. She was one of the three women (along with Judith Jamison and Sylvia Waters) to whom Mr. Ailey had entrusted the future care of his dance company at the time he passed away. She was currently heading the Alvin Ailey School. She died of ovarian cancer. She was 66. How sad.

Click on the link below to read AAADT’s press release.

(Above photo by Andrew Eccles).

The Ailey family is deeply saddened to announce the passing of Denise Jefferson, who, for the past 26 years, was the director and impassioned steward of The Ailey School.  She died on Saturday night in New York of ovarian cancer.

Appointed as director by Alvin Ailey in 1984, after teaching at the School for 10 years, Ms. Jefferson — affectionately referred to as Ms. J — has been instrumental in identifying the potential, and mentoring myriad students as they began their journey to becoming some of the greatest dance artists in the world. “Powerful,” “technical,” “elegant,” “consistent,” “beautiful,” “fierce,” “a force of nature”— these are some of the adjectives most commonly used to describe Ailey students. They are also the words that best describe Denise Jefferson.

Words cannot express the magnitude of Denise’s loss to both the Ailey organization and to the world of dance. It is a testament to her leadership that 87% of current Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancers honed their skills through training from The Ailey School. Dancers trained under Denise’s nurturing direction have also gone on to successful careers in the ranks of other prominent national and international dance companies, including Martha Graham Dance Company, Hubbard Street Dance, Mark Morris Dance Company, Ballet Frankfurt, Ballet Nacional de Espana and Nederlands Dans Theater, among countless others.

Denise Jefferson’s indefatigable dedication and clear vision of the elements required to train world-class dancers, produced a challenging, innovative and sophisticated program that is sought out by students from around the world. Since its inception, The Ailey School has attracted students from 93 countries. Denise traveled the globe teaching and offering opportunities for the most talented dancers to receive unparalleled dance training at The Ailey School. Her foresight and ingenuity led her to break new ground in 1998 with the development of the innovative Ailey/Fordham BFA Program, which offers students the best of two worlds– the artistic pre-eminence of the official school affiliated with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, combined with an exceptional liberal arts education from Fordham University.

With a firm but compassionate hand, Denise demanded excellence from both students and faculty members; instilling discipline, an astounding work ethic, and respect for the form.  She took great pride in the fact that one can always tell a student who was trained at The Ailey School – not only because of their ability, but also due to their professionalism.  Tracy Inman and Melanie Person have been named Acting Co-Directors of The Ailey School and Ana Marie Forsythe has been appointed Acting Director of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program.

Denise Jefferson was born in Chicago, Illinois, where she began her ballet studies with Edna L. McRae.    After receiving a B.A. in French from Wheaton College and an M.A. in French from New York University, she was awarded a scholarship to Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance and, after one year, began her professional career with the Pearl Lang Dance Company.

While her professional achievements were great and many, it was Denise’s humor, wit, grace and authenticity that made everyone who knew her love and appreciate her.  Denise is survived by her daughter Francesca Harper, her sister Margo Jefferson and her loving mother Irma Jefferson. Her legacy will endure and her spirit will forever have life through all of the dancers she influenced. Whenever a curtain goes up, Denise’s light will be cast upon us, and warm us, and we will remember.

A celebratory memorial concert is being planned at The Ailey Studios for a later date.  At the request of the family, donations may be made in her memory to the Denise Jefferson Scholarship Fund at The Ailey School.



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 by Alvin Ailey in 1984.

Since that time, Jefferson has built The Ailey School into its current status as an internationally renowned dance academy, providing well-rounded dance education for aspiring performing artists.  Annually, The Ailey School enrolls over 3,500 dance students, ages 3-25 and offers more than 300 diverse weekly classes in 10 different techniques with a faculty of over 75 dance specialists. Jefferson has traveled all over the globe teaching, auditioning, and offering opportunities for the most talented dancers to receive world class dance training at The Ailey School.  Since its inception, The Ailey School has attracted and enrolled students from 93 countries.

During her tenure as Director, Jefferson expanded both the Junior and Professional divisions of The Ailey School.  In 1998, Jefferson broke new ground in educating and training professional dancers with the development of the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program.  The innovative bachelor of fine arts degree program in dance offers the best of two worlds – the artistic pre-eminence of the official school of the world-famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, combined with an exceptional liberal arts education from Fordham University.  To date, over 160 dancers have graduated from the four-year full-time Ailey/Fordham BFA Program.  The Ailey School now offers a wide variety of programs and opportunities for those aspiring to a career in dance and provides approximately 300 scholarships annually to deserving students who otherwise would be unable to pursue professional training.

Jefferson also expanded the Junior Division of The Ailey School, leading efforts to create programs for children ages three and up, and encouraging the study of dance by young boys through dedicated classes.  In 1995, a unique partnership began between The Ailey School and the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS), where public high school students received dance training at The Ailey School..

Throughout the past 25 years, thousands of students have benefitted from her nurturing direction, leading them into professional careers in prominent dance companies, including, Martha Graham Dance Company, Nederlands Dans Theater, Ballet Frankfurt, Ballet Nacional de Espana, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater among countless others.   Of the 30 dancers currently in Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, 87% honed their skills through training from The Ailey School; a testament to the visionary and incomparable leadership of Denise Jefferson.

For the National Association of Schools of Dance, she has been President, Vice-President, Secretary, a member of the Board of Directors, Chairperson of the Commission on Accreditation and is currently its Dance Chairperson. She is also a panelist for the Dance Program and a former Appeals Panel member of the New York State Council on the Arts. Ms. Jefferson was the Vice-Chairperson of the International Association for Blacks in Dance and a former President of the Emergency Fund for Student Dancers.

She has been an adjudicator and a master teacher for the ARTS program sponsored by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. She is currently on the Boards of Directors for the Monte/Brown Dance Company and Career Transitions for Dancers, as well as on the Board of Trustees of the Walnut Hill School and Wheaton College. In May of 2010, Jefferson received a certificate recognizing 10 years of dedicated service to the Wheaton College Board of Trustees.  She is also a member of the Advisory Boards of Dance Teacher magazine, the Professional Children’s School and the University of Oklahoma’s Dance Department.

Ms. Jefferson serves as an evaluator of professional dance academies and college and university dance departments in the U.S. and abroad, and as an adjudicator of international dance competitions. She has taught at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Benedict College, University of Illinois (Chicago), Sarah Lawrence College, London Contemporary Dance School, National Dance Theatre of Bermuda, Rudra Béjart and the International Summer Academy in Cologne, Germany. Ms Jefferson was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Wheaton College and Tufts University.  In 2009, Ms. Jefferson received the Distinguished Alumna award from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.


  1. I had the pleasure of knowing and working with this lovely lady from 1979 until I retired from working with the Ailey Family in 2005. Denise was elegant and soft spoken. She was attractive and funny, but I will aways remember her for her loyalty. Denise was very protective of her friends, staff and co-workers like a Mother Hen spreading her wings over her chickens on a rainy day. My love and sympathy are with her family, especially her daughter Fran. We are sad to see Denise go, but she will have wonderful things to tell Mr. Ailey about the growth of his legacy.

  2. Thank you so much for your wonderful comment, Ms. Rose.

  3. I have just learned about Ms. Jefferson’s death over Thanksgiving holiday. I was talking to a friend of mine, who continues to dance. I was on scholarship at the Ailey school while Ms. Jefferson was director. I had the honor of taking class with her. She worked us very hard and demanded nothing but the best from every student.

    I remember her as a stern but talented teacher. I’ll never forget one class of many that I took with her, during a particular complex and troubled period of my life. It was a modern dance class, I was very sad by what was going on in my life then, but somehow during her class I had forgotten all about the sadness and realized at the very end of class, that she had the ability to not only teach from her heart, but import the very same feeling to her students. She made me realize how much I loved dance and that no matter what was happening outside of the studios, dance will always be my refuge, there was, and is, only gratitude for that gift from her.

    May she have found happiness.
    May she have found safety.
    May she have found peace.

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