A couple of weeks ago, the kind people at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater invited me to visit one of their Ailey camps. The one nearest me was in Washington Heights, so I spent a morning up there watching the kids and their classes. Then, late last week, they invited me to that camp’s final performance, which took place at Columbia University’s Miller Theater.
What a sweet night! So precious – the kids were so proud, the parents were so proud, the teachers were so proud. And the kids danced very very well. Some of them could seriously have professional dance careers if they wanted.
But that’s not really the point of the Ailey camps. They’re not pre-professional schools, like the Ailey school; they’re for underprivileged, inner-city kids from ages 11-14 to have a wonderful summer experience learning to dance – or, rather, learning discipline and and self-respect and acquiring an appreciation for the arts through self-expression. The camps are focused on dance, of course, but the children also take classes in other forms of self-expression, such as writing – where they compose poems about their lives, drumming (could anything be more fun than beating rhythmically on a conga drum?!) , and personal improvement kind of classes where they learn about the effects of drugs and alcohol, nutrition, etc., but in a fun way, by grouping into teams and having a kind of group Jeopardy tournament. The dance classes encompass many forms — ballet, tap, Horton-based modern, jazz, and African. And they go from class to class each day, each class lasting about 45 minutes. So, it’s like a school, but a really fun school! The camps receive corporate funding and grants, so the kids pay nothing to go; they don’t even pay for leotards and tights, etc.
The performance was really lovely. The various groups danced ballet, modern, tap, jazz, lots of African (that seemed to be the most fun, both for the kids and the spectators), read poems, and there was a drum section. There was a beautiful lyrical modern dance by an ensemble of girls that ended up being a wonderful tribute to Denise Jefferson, who passed away a few weeks ago. And they had a big tribute to Judith Jamison (Alvin Ailey’s muse and central dancer, who has run the company for the past two decades and who will retire at the end of this season). That tribute involved a life-sized puppet that the kids constructed, which they managed to make dance, which was really spectacular, and elicited loads of applause.
As I said, a really special night.
Here are a couple of videos I found on YouTube. The first is of the Miami camp (there are, I think, 13 altogether, in cities around the U.S.), and explains what the camp is all about, and the second is scenes from past NY camps.