H is name may not be one you recognise, but Alvin Ailey has been credited with popularising modern dance. Deeply respected in his field, his fellow dancers would often refer to him as Cultural Ambassador of the World and President Obama personally selected Ailey to be a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His beginnings, however, were far from illustrious. Born in Texas in 1931 to a 17 year-old, his father abandoned the family when he was only six months old. A teenage single mother in the depression hit South, life was hard for Ailey and his family. But in the early 40s, his mother moved the family to Los Angeles where there was plenty of work available supporting the war effort. Unlike the schools in Texas, the more theatrical-bent state of California offered Ailey dance lessons. He picked up the basic moves right away and soon showed promise. A school friend introduced him to dance teacher Lester Horton, who gave Ailey a place at his school. Ailey would go on to work in Horton’s dance company and he made his debut on the strange in 1953. But later that year, Horton died, leaving the whole company in a state of chaos. The young Ailey stepped forward to become the new artistic director. Within the space of a few years, he had gone from a poor student to the director of a dance company. Ailey found the dance world ideal of him. Knowing he was attracted to men, the theatrical world of dance offered him a place to be himself and meet likeminded people. His sexuality was suddenly not a problem. His young age and lack of experience was not an issue either and although he was only 22, he began to choreograph for the company. In 1954 he headed to New York to dance in the Broadway show of House of Flowers by Truman Copte. He also appeared in a few more shows while he was there. Little is known about his love life, although there were suggestions that he was romantically linked with a well-known political activist called David McReynolds in the 1950s. In 1958, he decided the time had come to form his own group, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. His signature work with his company was Revelations, which drew on the biblical teaching of his youth. It became his most famous work and attracted a great deal of attention among the theatre loving New York culture. Ailey created around 79 works for his company and had some pretty impressive commissions, including The River for the American Ballet Theatre. His eclectic style incorporated a range of techniques and styles and borrowed heavily from ballet and jazz. He was also a rare black face in the modern dance world and he is credited with inspiring a whole generation of African-American dancers. Sadly in the 1980s, like many gay men in New York, Ailey contracted HIV. The illness was still untreatable and sadly he developed AIDS quite quickly and died in 1989. To protect his mother from the social stigma of the illness, he instructed his doctor to announce he had died of a blood disorder.

Natalie has been an LGBT journalist for 12 years and joined the Fyne team in 2001. Her interests outside of work are cycling, running and badminton. She is also studying for a degree in psychology.

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