ASK the dancers and teachers at the Alvin Ailey Dance Center what keeps their school alive, and you're likely to get this response: "the continuing vision." Or maybe this one: "the celebration of the individual."
Vision and celebration are two feet on which the center dances. As the official school of the internationally renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, it has grown over 20 years into a strong and steady institution, rife with raw and budding talent.
But the center hasn't been exempt from feeling the force of gravity with such challenges as precarious funding and the loss of its founding father and visionary two years ago. Still, it continues.
Alvin Ailey, a leading figure in establishing modern dance in America, founded the dance center in 1969 in Brooklyn, N.Y., with an enrollment of 125 students.
Today nearly 3,000 students from many different backgrounds and countries train each year in the school's studios located near Lincoln Center. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, the resident company of the school, also rehearse here.
Surviving in mid-Manhattan has been no small feat. Many studios have folded because of soaring real estate costs, but "the Ailey people have managed to keep it together - a strong factor in attracting good students," says Marion Horosko, education editor of Dance magazine.
"Keeping it together" is something that comes naturally to the Ailey clan. "Alvin always called it a family, and he's right," says Denise Jefferson, director of the school.
In an interview, Ms. Jefferson talked about a familial spirit that nurtures the body and soul of the school and the continuing vision of Alvin Ailey. The students have "real ties, emotionally and personally, with faculty and the administration," explains Jefferson, an effervescent woman whose extensive dance training is obvious even as she sits in a chair, confident and graceful.
With the faculty, "there is a concern about nurturing the next generation, to pass on the knowledge and information." Company dancers often teach classes, for example. Also, many students work in the school's administration.
The Alvin Ailey Dance Center prides itself on honoring individuality and making dance instruction available to everyone in all segments of society.
"The individual is unique and special, and we are here to celebrate that and help the dancers discover that," says Jefferson. "We believe you can't be a dancer if your spirit is restrained and cut off. You must touch that special thing inside."
Historically, the Alvin Ailey school has been known to attract minority and foreign dancers, especially with scholarship programs. It also has a large contingency of males like no other dance academy. Graduates of the school's professional programs have gone on to become dancers, performers, choreographers, and teachers of dance throughout the world.
The ties between dance company and school are close. Mr. Ailey recognized that the longevity of his vision was only as good as the upcoming generations. "Alvin loved young people. The school was a source of energy, rejuvenation, and spirit," Jefferson says. "The future lies in those young people." Also, Theater artistic director Judith Jamison and Repertory Ensemble artistic director Sylvia Waters keep tabs on hot prodigies training at the school.
Ailey's vision for helping young people also extends outside the pure-dance arena. Ailey "camps" are held each summer for at-risk children in Kansas City. Last summer 65 young people attended New York's first Ailey camp. "It's a way of using the arts to help turn these risk kids around. The arts give you space to be yourself, be a little different and celebrate being different," says Jefferson.
Here at the school, a peek in Studio 2 reveals Celia Inez Marino teaching ballet to a group of teenage girls. To the untrained dance eye, their arabesques on pointe seem flawless. Still, Ms. Marino has them hold the pose and practice more.
"They [the school staff] know that the training must begin early and must incorporate several forms of dance," says Dance Magazine's Ms. Horosko. "The growth must be steady and secure. They realize it takes eight to 10 years to make a dancer."
The Ailey school is also well known for its diverse curriculum including classical ballet, Dunham (Afro-Caribbean), Graham-based modern, Horton jazz, jazz tap; complimented by classes in yoga, body conditioning, barre a terre, dance history, performance, composition, improvisation, music and theatre arts, and more.
Tyrone Peterson, 21, from Jacksonville, Fla., is studying here in hopes of joining the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. "The company is so many techniques. It's ballet, Graham, tap, singing, everything combined into one school, one company," he says. "It's a challenge. That's what draws most of us here."
It would be safe to say that a healthy share of students who come to train seriously at the school have dreams of some day joining the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, possibly the most popular company on the international touring circuit. The Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble serves as a bridge between the school and membership in professional dance companies. Since its inception in 1974, more than 30 of its members have been selected to join the Dance Theater. In 1981, the school was accredited as a st udio-school, whereby academic classes, such as dance history, are offered: "minds and bodies being trained, spirits nurtured," says Jefferson.
How has it been without Alvin Ailey? Many here insist that after the founder's death, transition has been smooth. Longtime Ailey superstar Judith Jamison, the artistic director, has taken on her role in a way that several people - including Jefferson - have said "Alvin would be thrilled."
As far as the future, Jefferson says she and others on the school staff will continue to focus inside and outside the studios. There are always visiting teachers to lure, young dancers to encourage, and productions to promote. Curriculum is bound to change. "The world is shrinking," Jefferson acknowledges. It's not enough to teach European forms in American dance, when there is so much more: Indian, African....
"One of my jobs is to get out there and see what the latest trends are." What's caught her eye? "This whole hip-hop thing in jazz," she offers as one example. "We're aware of the tradition and keeping it alive," she adds, "yet still acting as a springboard into the future."