Alvin Ailey and Sociology

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Category: Sociology, Alvin Ailey

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As the world begins to modernize, society develops into what sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies calls a “Gesellschaft” society. In a Gesellschaft society, people concentrate only on themselves and build relationships mostly based on the possible monetary gains. Because people are so focused on money, matters that do not possess any monetary value tend to be discarded as insignificant or unworthy. Subjects such as the arts are often seen as unnecessary, excess, and impractical.
However, what people fail to realize, is that art is in fact an integral part of humanity. Art can provide deep insights into our society, revealing both its positive and negative aspects in the most genuine form. Dance? a physical expression of art? is one of the many methods people uses to portray the various characteristics of society. Alvin Ailey’s signature work: “Revelations”, produced in 1960, is a prime example that reflected and exposed the social changes that were occurring during that era. The 1960s was marked as a time of great change as it was the era when America began to transform into an increasingly modern society.
There were significant improvements in science (and technology exemplified by the start of the space exploration), which greatly changed how people lived and viewed the world. However, the most important changes were probably societal ones, namely the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was categorized by African Americans expressing their dissatisfactions with the injustices that they had to endure in past century. Although African Americans were liberated from slavery after the Civil War, they still had to deal with the inequality of racial segregation.

Under those laws, African Americans had to face disadvantages such as (but not limited to): lack of voting rights, inferior quality of facilities, and unequal treatment under law. In sociological terms, there was little social mobility, institutionalized discrimination, and communities were racially stratified. It was not until the 1960s that the nonviolent protests and public civil disobediences of African Americans began to gain prominence and produce effect. In 1960, one of the many famous acts of civil disobedience, the “Greensboro Sit-Ins” occurred.
The sit-ins consisted of multiple instances of nonviolent protests at the Woolworth Store in Greensboro, North Carolina by local African American students. After repeated protests and growing tensions, the store finally desegregated its services. Coincidently, Ailey’s “Revelations” was produced in the same year that the protests occurred. Although there wasn’t a direct correlation between the Greensboro protests and the creation of Ailey’s dance, the production of Ailey’s dance was nevertheless a sign of social change.
When Ailey’s dance company first performed, they changed the entire dynamic of American Dance Theater as African American way of life was finally represented by African Americans instead of by proxies of Caucasian dancers. The ability of African American dancers to represent their own culture shows the social change of the transfer of authority (of the dance theater industry) from the dominant group to the minority group. Another way that Ailey’s dance company signified social change was its integration of different ethnic groups.
Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Lester Horton, Ailey decided to include dancers of different races into his dance company in 1962. Ailey’s practice of what sociologists termed “ethnic pluralism” was another sign of social change. Besides evidencing social change, “Revelations” also reflected the various elements of American society. The dance itself was able to show these elements through the contents of the plot, which was divided into three sections: “Pilgrim of Sorrow”, “Take Me to the Water”, and “Move Members, Move”.
The first section, “Pilgrims of Sorrow” is about the sufferings of African Americans during the slavery era. The story depicts African Americans toiling through hard labor as slaves and trying to use song as an outlet for relief. Ailey also incorporates the song “I’ve been ‘Buked”, by Hall Johnson, to accentuate the agony and frustrations of African Americans. The reason why Ailey brought back stories of extreme hardship is perhaps he wanted to remind Americans how much pain African Americans had to go through.
He wanted to emphasize how important it was for people to realize the need for the abolishment of segregation. Ailey also probably felt that because America’s history of racial inequality has existed for such a long time, African Americans have become what William Wilson calls the “permanent underclass”. Even after the Civil Rights Act passed, like W. E. B du Bois described in “The Philadelphia Negro”, African Americans still face financial disadvantages due to the situations they were put in before the passing of the bill.
With the coexistence of people’s constant “just-world hypothesis” and stubbornness of their cognitive schema, the disadvantages of African Americans will never receive the deserved attention as people will just assume that their misfortunes were brought upon by themselves. This is probably why Ailey recognized the bitter truth that racism will always exist. Slightly different from “Pilgrims of Sorrow”, “Take me to the Water” and “Move Members, Move” conveys a more positive atmosphere as it portrays scenes of baptism and church service. Take me to the Water” depicts a woman by the riverside, ready to get baptized while “Move Members, Move” depicts a celebratory church scene. These dances are also reflections of American society as it shows the roles of religion. One role of religion was providing comfort to those undergoing hardship. When African Americans went through slavery, they sought comfort in God and practicing Christianity. Another role of religion in American society was providing solidarity. Emile Durkheim believed that religion brought unity amongst people and connection between individuals.
This is reflected in American society as Christianity, America’s largest religion, underlies the many values in American culture. Another important aspect of Ailey’s dance that is worth mentioning is Ailey’s own life. When he was working on “Revelations”, a lot of the content was the result of his upbringings. Ailey grew up in rural Texas in the segregation era. At that time, especially in Texas, African Americans lived under constant danger as they not only faced discrimination, but also violence and risks of random lynching.
All of these atrocities combined are probably what allowed Ailey to have such strong feelings towards the suffering of the slaves in the first part of his dance. Another influential moment in Alvin Ailey’s life was his exposure to literature. When he studied at universities in California, he learned of the writings of famous African American writers such as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. In addition to his meeting with Maya Angelou, he perhaps became influenced and meant his performance to be an act to promote civil rights. Another influence of Ailey’s life was his exposure to religion.
When he was young, he attended a Southern Baptist church. The songs and hymns that he heard when he went to church was probably influential to his other two dances “Take me to the Water” and “Move Members, Move”. This goes to show that what people experience in their childhood greatly influences their social identity as an adult. From Ailey’s background and dance piece, it could be seen that America during the 1960s was dominated by the Caucasian race, had a strong sense of religion (specifically Christianity), and had an unequal society.
It was also beginning to advance into a developed society, which explains the rapid social change. To a certain extent, America today still possesses some discrimination towards certain ethnic groups, and equality isn’t exactly fully established in every aspect of the country. Nevertheless, as society progresses, so will its values. There will come a point in the future when all of the negative aspects that society used to possess will change for the better. However, it is important to be aware of the need of social change. One way that social change can be exercised is through art.
Art is a highly human expression, and is one of the many methods that can facilitate social change.
Works Cited

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre: Origins to 1979”, International Encyclopedia of Dance, vol. 1. Oxford University Press, New York: 1979. 54-57.
Dunning, Jennifer (1996). Alvin Ailey: A Life In Dance. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, INC. ISBN 0-201-62607-1.
Foulkes, Julia L. Modern bodies: Dance and American modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 179-184
Kowal, Rebekah J. How to Do Things with Dance : Performing Change in Postwar America (Middletown, CT; Wesleyan University Press, 2010), 1-6
Mitchell, Jack. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (Kansas City, Mo. : Andrews and McMeel, 1993), 1-25 “Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins”, Library of Congress. Retrieved April 15, 2013.
“Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins”, Library of Congress. Retrieved April 15, 2013.

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