BORN: May 10, 1943 -
Ms. Judith Jamison was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She attended public schools there; a musical child who took formal violin lessons and was taught to play the piano by her father, a part-time musician and singer who longed to be a concert performer. When she was six, her parents enrolled her in dance lessons as part of an effort to deal with her developing gangliness. She studied dance at the Judimar School of Dance and concentrated on ballet under the direction of Marion Cuyjet, but also received instruction in tap, acrobatics, jazz, and primitive dance.
During her 11 years with teachers Dolores Brown, John Jones, Melvin Brooms, and John Hines, Ms. Jamison also benefited from guest instructors from the professional world, such as Anthony Tudor, Vincenzo Celli, and Maria Swoboda. Despite her years of dance training, Ms. Jamison graduated from high school without any clear-cut goals. "I never thought of dancing as a career," she told Robert Wahls in a 1972 interview for The New York Sunday Times. "It was simply the hobby giving me the most pleasure." Ms. Jamison received a scholarship to Fisk University and began studying for a degree in psychology, but she spent a large part of her time "mooning around the music room." After three semesters, she realized she wanted to dance and left college to enroll at the Philadelphia Dance Academy, where she continued ballet studies under Nadia Chilkovsky, James Jamieson, and Juri Gottschalk. She rounded out her program with the study of Labanotation (a system of dance symbols based on movement of various parts of the body) and classes in the Lester Horton technique at John Kerr's Dance School.
In 1964, Jamison caught the attention of Agnes de Mille who was at the Philadelphia Dance Academy to teach a master class. De Mille invited her to dance the role of Mary Seaton in her new ballet The Four Marys, which premiered in February 1965, during the American Ballet Theater's run at Lincoln Center in New York. Following that season, Ms. Jamison remained in New York so she would be available to audition for other companies. Another break came in 1965, when Ms. Jamison auditioned for Donald McKayle for a projected Harry Belafonte television special. Although she did not get a part, she caught the eye of choreographer Alvin Ailey, who was visiting the audition and thought she was "extraordinary." Three days later, he called and invited her to join his company.
Described as regal in stature and glorious in motion, the 5'10" Ms. Jamison made her mark during the 1960s as a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, an integrated but largely black company founded by choreographer Alvin Ailey. The troupe embarked on a whirlwind tour of Western Europe, with a side trip to the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, at which time the Ailey troupe was the only integrated company to perform. In addition to her "commanding presence," Ms. Jamison was acclaimed for her impeccable technique and her individualistic style, the result of a somewhat eclectic training program that included classical ballet and a wide variety of modern-dance disciplines.
Leaving the Ailey Company in 1980, Ms. Jamison pursued independent ventures, including the formation of her own company, The Jamison Project. Upon Ailey's death in 1989, she was named artistic director of both the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, the company's official satellite school attended by over 3,000 students. As one of the few women to head up a major dance company, she remains a powerful force in the dance world. During her tenure, Ms. Jamison has worked to establish short-term residencies in various cities, with the goal of providing classes in dance, creative writing, and stage production to underprivileged youths. She has also overseen fund-raising efforts for the company, the school, and the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, seeking funds from corporate as well as private contributors.
Judith Jamison was among the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors and was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Massachusetts, both in 1999. "I've got a million heartbeats in me," she has said. "My folks have been dancing since the beginning of time, so I've got this advantage."
Please watch the video of Ms Judith Jamison on the Love, Life & Legacy of Ballet: