Choreographer and dancer Alvin Ailey said, “I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.” For the staff at Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, this quote guides them in carrying out their various year-round educational programs, dance classes and outreach efforts.
While the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey is known for bringing the two principal Ailey dance companies to Kansas City each year, the arts organization offers up so much more than those performances. When Alvin Ailey came to Kansas City in the late 60’s, he saw potential… and when he was looking for an extension of his artistic vision, the Kansas City community rallied with their support. Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey (KCFAA) was formed in 1984 through that partnership. Executive Director Tyrone Aiken has been a strong presence in that partnership and is a wealth of information, thoughtfully sharing the 30-year history of the KCFAA organization. “What we do day in and day out provides the opportunity and experience to further dance in our community,” he says.
From its modest beginnings, the organization has significantly grown and been able to accomplish a lot in its 30 years, and is strategically looking to the future. Aiken sees this 30th anniversary to continue to expand the organizations’ offerings beyond the performances in October. In addition to the current year round programming that serves the Kansas City community, KCFAA is partnering with the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance for a Fall Symposium. The September 4 symposium is the starting point for a five-year project that will “focus attention on fostering awareness of issues of diversity at the local, regional, national and international level. The featured speakers will share their contributions to American cultural arts and give important insights on race, diversity and success.”
The first Symposium will feature three dance legends: Cleo Parker Robinson, the director of the Denver-based cultural arts institution Cleo Parker Robison Dance; Ann Williams, the founder and artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre; and Joan Myers Brown, founder of The Philadelphia Dance Company (PHILADANCO) and The Philadelphia School of Dance Arts. The three presenters will talk about African-American dance, contributions, race and ethnicity, the importance of dance, creating your own business and developing partnerships. There will also be a free community town hall meeting about Race, Place and the Importance of Diversity at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 4 at the Gem Theater.
Coming up this fall, KCFAA is presenting The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Oct. 22-25. As part of the 30th Anniversary celebration, KCFAA is partnering with local university students. Students from the Kansas City Art Institute are creating costumes, décor, centerpieces and a 30th Anniversary video for the Gala. “Several dancers from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance will audition and be selected to dance with the Company for the performance of Alvin Ailey’s Memoria”, Aiken says. The performances at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts will be a mix of the classic and traditional pieces, plus both Kansas City and World premieres.
This 30th Anniversary celebration is a platform for new programming into 2015, including a larger dance festival in June in the 18th and Vine District. This anniversary year really helps the organization sharpen the focus on the mission to be relevant, exciting and innovative with the events for the community. Aiken says, “We are also working on the ‘Ailey in Your Neighborhood’ program in 2015, where we take dancers to communities where people live and work. We want to expose people to the arts.”
Along with serving as the official second home of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, KCFAA puts significant energy into developing and delivering youth programming. Annually, about 30,000 young people are reached. In 30 years, Aiken estimates that about 1 million people have been touched by dance because of their organization. “Dance, probably more than any other art format, allows an access point that is intellectual, artistic and spiritual. For young students, they may learn they have unique gifts and they can feel an immediate sense of accomplishment.”
Aiken says with dance not being a usual subject matter in schools, KCFAA fulfills an important role in the community. “Dance has an athletic component, as well as historical and creative aspects. We can impact young people and provide the community with open access to this.” Along with dance, KCFAA works on civic leadership and engagement through health and wellness. “We want to strengthen the whole community’s well-being. Dance can be a motivator.”
Michael Joy, the Director of Artistic and Educational Programs at KCFAA, aims for integrity and joy when he is helping design educational programming. “In an administrative role, I still have the opportunity to teach and work closely with our teaching artists, and the students and families in our programs. On the administrative side, I aim to uphold the integrity and artistic merit of our year-round programs through working closely with KCFAA clients, school administrators and teachers.”
Joy sees life skills being formed through these programs. “We work on skills that help shape us as people, not just dancers. This could be honoring others, treating others with fairness, and instilling a work ethic. While I was training to be a dancer, I went to work with my father at the fish market. I learned the importance of hard work and how that applies to being successful.” Joy started dancing at 21and has danced all over the world, including with the Ailey Company in New York. “Camp is a highlight of my year. We used the theme of ‘Legacy’ at AileyCamp this year. We talked about the importance of how we want to be remembered each day, not just how you’re remembered when you’re gone. At camp we learn that each day is an opportunity to make better choices and inspire others. We set expectations, but the best part is meeting people where they are and growing together each day. Everyone sees a transformation at the end of the six weeks.”
Board president Robin Royals has been involved with the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey for more than six years. “I was an athlete and I remember what organized sports did for my life, I know it is a similar structure in the summer AileyCamp. It’s all about what we able to do for the kids. We can help change their lives forever. If I drew a diagram, I would put the kids in the middle.”
For Royals, as with Aiken and Joy, the success comes with the ability to fill a void within the community as a whole. “There are a lot of passionate people. I believe in what the organization does and we can always fall back on what the kids gain. I know personally I have gained more than what I have given. The connection in the community is so rich.”
As the organization moves into its 30th year, the strategic plans have been aided by Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center. He started his arts business career as Executive Director of the Kansas City Ballet and had teamed the ballet dancers with Ailey dancers in the past. “He also served as Executive Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. One of his goals is to get us to talk more about the good story we have. We have to ensure that we are around 30 years from now and beyond. We have to continue to share that we are an integral part of the Greater Kansas City area,” Royals says. “We honor diversity. Our audiences are diverse, as well as our Board and Co-Chairs of any event. We are part of the community fabric and the coming celebration is not just for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, but a celebration of greater Kansas City.”
Aiken, Royals and Joy know that the future will include growth and change. “There’s always room for improvement,” Aiken says. “We want to continue to meet the challenges and needs in the community.” Joy sees the staying power for KCFAA because all of the organization’s programmatic aspects touch people. “We will stay true to our mission and aim to touch people in emotional and intellectual ways. As we celebrate the local, national and international artists, we will help Kansas City continue that move toward being an international city.”