Using Discipline, Focus Of Dance, Kansas City Ailey Group Confronts America's Big Problem

Oct 21, 2016

Each year in the fall, nearly 1,700 people enjoy Ailey II modern dance performances presented by the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey. But besides being the official second home of the famed New York-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the local organization has another year-round mission: to create social change by encouraging diversity.

That's a lofty goal, admits Tyrone Aiken, Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey's chief artistic director. The mission applies specifically to the non-profit's leadership, staff, and volunteer structure, with a goal of "uniting people across racial, ethnic and social barriers to promote awareness, respect, friendship, and ultimately, community-wide social change."

A few years ago, the organization decided to devote more effort to that "community-wide" part.

Dance is the foundation, of course. For example, a few days before this year's Ailey II performance at the Folly Theater the first weekend of October, small teams of dancers from New York City fanned out all over Kansas City.

One pair, Khalia Campbell and Jacoby Pruitt, was assigned to Northeast Johnson County. Around lunch time, they headed to the Hen House in Fairway — specifically, to the aisle between the meat counter and the salad bar, where the two tall, toned, gorgeous African-American dancers set up a little speaker and performed two pieces, including one set to a raucous gospel version of the old spiritual "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham."

From the Hen House, they piled into an SUV and drove to 95th and Mission and did the same thing all over again in the lobby of a bank. They arrived at the Tavern restaurant in Prairie Village just as the lunch rush was ending, and performed their two dances once again, before heading over to do the same thing at Prairie Elementary School.

In each location, some members of their captive and surprised audiences knew about Alvin Ailey; others figured it was some kind of publicity stunt (which wasn't entirely untrue: It was was partly to promote the Ailey II shows later that week).

But the dancers were also carrying out one of Alvin Ailey’s core principals.

"He has this famous quote that everyone uses, that says, 'Dance came from community and should be delivered back to the community,'” said Jacoby Pruitt, one of the dancers that day.

"It’s just fun to see them get surprised," Pruitt says. "They’re not expecting us to pop up and start dancing and see people get swept up in it."

So for a while that day, strangers in unlikely settings got together to enjoy this art form. That’s the easy part of Ailey’s mission of uniting diverse people.

Other tactics require more work and more time. That's why Elaina Levingston, the company’s master teaching artist, drives to schools across the metro every day.

Elaina Levingston, Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey's master teaching artist, backstage at Symington Elementary School, where she teaches after-school classes.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

"I teach up to five classes a day, sometimes starting at 7 in the morning and ending at 7 at night," Levingston says at the end of one after-school class, for first- through sixth-graders, at Symington Elementary School in a South Kansas City neighborhood where, she says, young people need more opportunities.

"Dance is a form of expression," she says. "It helps them not only find out who they are in an artistic and creative way, it also helps them learn more about coordination, it helps them learn about participation. It helps them learn about confidence. It helps them learn about discipline. It helps them learn how to focus on something difficult."

Levingston will teach dance to more than 5,000 kids this year (overall, Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey says it serves 30,000 young people each year). Levingston encourages the ones who show particular promise to go to the company’s Ailey Camp, another program that focuses on youth development beyond dance.

On a recent Saturday morning, Aiken was teaching ballet to about twenty of those Ailey Camp dancers, between the ages of 12 and 17, at the organization's 18th and Vine headquarters.

Making ballet accessible to these African-American students requires more than teaching them the technique, Aiken says.

"The idea of classical music, the idea of an art form that is 500 years old, the idea that they don't see themselves much when it comes to the art form or the technique, means we're asking them to take a leap when it comes to understanding or connecting to it," Aiken says.

But he knows how powerful the art form can be.

"I grew up poor and had my first opportunity to go to live dance performance after saving up some money," Aiken says. "I was 16 and went to see a performance of the Nutcracker with the Eglevsky Ballet on Long Island. I was just blown away. What it did was created an access point to a different world."

All of those youth-development-through-dance efforts are one way of creating social change. But in early November, Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey will do something that has nothing to do with dance.

Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey's chief artistic officer, Tyrone Aiken, in front of a picture of the organization's namesake outside its headquarters at 18th and Vine.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

For the third year in a row, the organization will convene a day-long symposium and town-hall meeting on Race, Place and Diversity. Over the last two years, a few hundred people have gathered for lunch, followed by break-out sessions and panels and an evening town hall to try to tackle these tension-filled topics.

"The symposiums were designed to create visibility around the importance of what the organization is trying to stand for: this idea that you have a stronger community when people can work together," Aiken says.

While the symposium is designed to look at the challenges faced by minorities, Aiken says, the point is to try to "move the conversation beyond the default, which in this country has always been race."

Today, Aiken says, there's an overarching issue.

"Whether we're talking about sexual orientation, age, gender, we need to grapple with how to deal with difference, so that we can work together," he says, noting that the voice of the white working class has been missing from the diversity conversation.

Aiken knows a day of talks about diversity in the 18th and Vine district is likely to end up preaching to the choir – that many of the people who would benefit from these conversations might not be inclined to show up.

But he welcomes everyone.

"We do invite people who have differing opinions," he says, "because it's important to work through and come to greater understanding based on someone’s perspective."

Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey's 2016 Symposium on Race, Place and Diversity, followed by a Post-Election Town Hall, Thursday, November 10, in the Historic 18th and Vine District.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.