The one-year anniversary of the passing of former Ailey School director, Denise Jefferson, has passed. Affectionately called “Ms. J” by her students, she died of ovarian cancer on July 17, 2010.
Jefferson began her ballet studies with Edna L. McRae in her hometown of Chicago. Initially she didn’t see a place for herself in the dance world. “I had never seen anyone who wasn’t white in a ballet company” (Dance Magazine, 1999). She went to school and got a BA in French at Wheaton College. However, after her exposure to modern dance, she went to train at the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance on scholarship. Her professional dance career took off at the Pearl Lang Dance Company. Additionally, she danced professionally with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater under the tutelage of Alvin Ailey. After starting at the Ailey School in 1974, she was hand picked by Ailey to be school director in 1984, and hence the powerful Ailey school legacy began.
With all her career accomplishments and titles, what do we remember most about Ms. J? She offered something very special to the dance world. Often her alumni students would be described as “fierce,” “powerful,” “technical,” “elegant,” “consistent,” “beautiful,” “a force of nature,” terms often associated with Jefferson herself. In The Christian Science Monitor in 1992, Jefferson said, “The individual is unique and special and we are here to celebrate that and help the dancers discover that. We believe you can’t be a dancer if your spirit is restrained and cut off. You must touch that special thing inside.”
We remember her commitment to training the whole dancer, not only as a brilliant technician, but as an artist and human being. She cared about her dancers’ intellectual growth, which was apparent in her creation of the innovative degree program with Fordham University in 1998.
Shortly after Jefferson’s passing, there was a blog created on the Ailey School website, allowing anyone who wished to do so to share their memories of Denise Jefferson. There are 97 posts worth of memories, vividly detailed memories, from anyone, including the audience members, and dance fans. Her influence stretched beyond the close human relationships she had.
Reggie Brown, dance instructor/choreographer based in Los Angeles, comments on the impression Jefferson left on him as a dance artist, despite never having met her: “She had a great impact in the world of dance by facilitating and nurturing young talent that have become some of the most outstanding and prominent artists of the day. Her legacy inspires me to passionately serve the next generation of dancers to first–excellence as a human being and second–an artist.”
We remember her courage and strong pursuit of excellence. Don Martin, Los Angeles based instructor in Modern dance and Lester Horton technique, says how he “had the privilege of meeting with her. She was a courageous and gifted lady. I had nothing but admiration for her and her work at the Ailey School. She will be greatly missed.”
We remember her concern for developing each dancer’s individual, unique voice. KaRon Brown Lehman, former director of Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and currently teaching in the Cincinnati, Ohio area, shared Denise Jefferson’s passion for nurturing dancers in spirit and technique:
“Denise Jefferson and I shared a huge passion; we loved sharing what we knew about dance to all who wanted to learn. We both taught and mentored young dancers, from all over the world; many of whom have become brilliant dance artists, choreographers, and dance instructors. Some own dance schools and companies, some are brilliant writers and musicians; as well as wives, parents, doctors and lawyers, and just lovers of dance. This passion is what linked our souls to each other. The first year Fordham opened its doors for dancers to receive a BFA in Dance I arranged to have the LA audition at LACHSA (Los Angeles County High School for the Arts). Four LACHSA seniors were chosen to enter this new BFA program; and it was the beginning of a long artistic relationship between two dance educators. Although Denise Jefferson and I never exchanged Christmas cards, presents, or even had a Kodak moment, I feel we exchanged so much more. We enjoyed exchanging stories about the seeds we planted and nurtured together.”
Ms. J’s legacy will always be well known with the creation of the Denise Jefferson Fund for the Ailey School. Though I have never met Denise Jefferson myself, it feels as if she is still alive because her words, her work, and her voice is planted in the hearts of dance educators, artists, choreographers, and dance mentors, across the world.