Alvin Ailey Opened the Eyes of a 12-Year-Old Zadie Smith

Don Bellamy, Karine Plantadit and Uri Sands of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Judith Jamison’s “Sweet Release.” 1996.CreditCreditRichard Corman/Weiss Katz Gallery


The author reflects on a childhood trip to see Alvin Ailey’s iconic dance company.

Don Bellamy, Karine Plantadit and Uri Sands of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Judith Jamison’s “Sweet Release.” 1996.CreditCreditRichard Corman/Weiss Katz Gallery

By Zadie Smith


When I was about 12, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater came to town and my mother took me to see them. It was a trip for just us two, and I was a little reluctant, suspecting some species of racial uplift, which I felt I could receive far more easily by staying in my room, listening to Monie Love and watching Cameo’s “Word Up” video on repeat. I was suspicious of racial uplift in general. The way it always seemed to point in the same direction, toward the supposed “higher” arts: the theater but not the television, opera singers but not beatboxers, ballet dancers but not body-poppers. No Jamaican mother ever ran into a kid’s bedroom, waving a cassette, crying: “Have you heard ‘Push It’? It’s by some brilliant young ladies from New York!” Yet I couldn’t imagine anything on the legitimate stage meaning as much to me as Salt-N-Pepa’s bump and grind.

Off we went — and it was a ravishment. Nothing prepares you for the totality of Alvin Ailey: the aural, visual, physical, spiritual beauty. Up to that point, most high-culture excursions (usually school trips) had felt like sly training for a lifetime of partly satisfying adult aesthetic experiences: nice singing but absurd story, or good acting but incomprehensible 400-year-old text, and so on. To be permitted to hear the thickly stacked, honeyed gospel of “Wade in the Water,” while simultaneously watching those idealized, muscular arms — in every shade of brown — slowly rise and assume the shape of so many ancient amphoras! Heaven. And then below the regality and poise of the upper body, beneath the waist, there continued the bastardized bump and grind from MTV, coming full circle to meet its call-and-response West African roots. Everywhere you looked: sensory pleasure. In place of the saccharine costume confections of “The Nutcracker,” here were down-home, flowing, church-white gowns, stunning against so much shining dark skin, and redolent of the American South, a dream place I’d visited only in books and song. It dawned on me that I was watching neither high nor low culture but rather a wholly unified thing.

Ailey’s all-encompassing vocabulary included the athletes from the running tracks and the fly-girls from the videos, the swaying of church ministers and the hip-switching of Caribbean dance hall and carnival. A diaspora of movement, in short. All fingertips stretched to the sky, all leaps seemed weightless, the whole logic tended upward. “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel well?” asked the gospel choir, and then pushed the question further from the biblical to the political: “Then why not every man?” Deliverance. From shackles, from oppression, from stereotype and misidentification, from prejudice, from any form of restraint, even that proposed by gravity. Toward freedom. (I note that in the photo the minister is the only one encumbered with shoes.)

To me, all dance is a discourse on freedom, but in black dance, for obvious reasons, this discourse has been as much literal as figurative. Which fact makes it impossible not to see this photograph as history as much as choreography, although it is an image in which the “black body” is not solely a site of pain, suffering and exploitation — as it is often depicted today — but also the locus of an extraordinary joy. At the shimmering point at which archetypes (“the black body”) become individuals and then icons, I spy, in this image of uplift, Bishop Richard Allen, Marsha Hunt and Joseph Cinque leaping into history, or the Rev. Al Green, Lauryn Hill and Bill T. Jones ascending toward the sublime. And each spring, now that I live in New York, I don’t have to go very far at all to get another shot of Ailey’s soaring delights.

Zadie SmithCreditDominique Nabokov

Zadie Smith is the author, most recently, of the essay collection “Feel Free.”


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