History Maker of the Week: Dancer and Choreographer Judith Jamison

During Black History Month, Library News & Announcements is featuring one history maker per week from the HistoryMakers Digital Archive to coincide with the Office of African-American Affairs’ Black Themed Friday events at the Luther Porter Jackson Black Cultural Center.

On February 22, from 1:30 to 3:30, the LPJ Center features Judith Jamison: dancer, choreographer, and director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. View the complete HistoryMakers interview!

Judith Jamison began her professional dancing career with Agnes de Mille’s American Ballet Theater and later became a choreographer, forming her own Jamison Project dance company. Her interview with HistoryMakers founder Julieanna Richardson, however, concentrates on her years as a student on the verge of her greatest renown, performing with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. She eventually became the company’s artistic director following Ailey’s death in 1989. She retired in 2011.

Jamison was born in 1943 in Philadelphia to John Henry Jamison, Sr. and Tessie Brown Jamison. She grew up in the Germantown suburb of Philadelphia in a house next to her mother’s parents. It was a small, three-story row house “with the bricks pointed perfectly by my father, no other house looked like that.” She describes her father as “a Southern gentleman” from Orangeburg, S.C. with a “deep baritone rich voice, handsome as all get out, smart as a whip, could take anything apart and put it back together again, carpenter, sheet metal mechanic, classical pianist, opera singer.” He taught Jamison to play the piano, and she grew up listening to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Jamison’s mother got her into Marion Cuyjet’s Judimar School of Dance at age six, understanding that her daughter was going to be “this tall, gangly kid [who] had to wear corrective shoes … ’cause my knees were knocking and … I was pigeon-toed.”  She wanted Judith “to not be uncomfortable … in her body.”

Her teacher, Marion Cuyjet “had red hair, white skin and green eyes and she was as black as you and me and she was proud of that and she started a school for the little black kids who study ballet because you couldn’t study back then.” In addition to classical ballet, Ms. Marion taught tap, “a little jazz you know,” which fit the style of Alvin Ailey who strove for “a modern top and a ballet bottom” in his company. Tap also came in handy when Jamison “ended up on Broadway starring in Sophisticated Ladies with  Gregory Hines.”

In high school, Jamison participated in patterned exercises called “eurythmics,” and was placed way in the back in the corner on the last row “and I was the best thing on that stage and I was also the blackest thing on that stage.” The “fury” that she felt “was something that was fabulous,” she recalls. “If they didn’t see it then, then certainly twelve years later they saw it.”

As a student at Fisk University, Jamison felt as if she were “floating,” a dancer “used to walking around in slacks … and people were walking around in dresses and heels and their hair was all done up …” “All I knew is I had to transfer out of a school that wasn’t working for me [and] get to … the Philadelphia Dance Academy [now The University of the Arts].”

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater came to Philadelphia in 1963 when Ailey was still dancing. Jamison saw him perform in his classic work “Wade in the Water” from Revelations, naively thinking, “oh I can do that,” wondering also, “who is that man on the stage, who are these dancers, how incredible.” Backstage she saw them packing, ironing clothes, “they were doing everything because back then everybody knew how to do everything … You had to know lighting. You had to know sewing costumes. You had to know choreography. You had to know how to teach a class. You had to know how to speak.”

In 1964 Jamison had a chance to audition for the Alvin Ailey Theater. “It was a disaster,” she says. “I was terrible at that audition.” She had been working at the New York World’s Fair and hadn’t danced in three months. “I had never seen steps like that before … I didn’t even see [Ailey] … I just passed by somebody that was sitting on the steps. I didn’t know it was him.” Three days later, he called and asked if she would join the company. Jamison learned later that he had seen an “innate musicality” in her. “He didn’t need to explain a lot. He would do the movement and I would do the movement.” She told Richardson that her success was part of an attitude, “an upward trajectory in my head that I had God’s ear and that I was just going this way … up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up.”

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