Dudley Williams has danced professionally for more than four decades. One of the primary dancers in the preeminent modern dance company with an African-American orientation—the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—Dudley Williams has been identified in the minds of dancegoers with several of Ailey's most famous dance solos, including a lengthy solo segment called "I Want to Be Ready," from Ailey's Revelations (1960). Williams's career has been remarkable as well for its longevity; joining the Ailey company in 1964, he did not retire until 2005, when he continued to dance in a unique company, oriented toward older dancers, that he co-founded. According to Susan Q. Stranahan of the AARP Bulletin, Williams has been "one of the longest active professional dancers anywhere."
Dudley Williams was born in New York City on August 18, 1938. He grew up in Harlem's East River housing projects, which, as he told Robert Tracy of Dance Magazine, were "a melting pot of everything." His father Ivan was a carpenter, his mother Austra a homemaker who cared for Williams's developmentally disabled younger sister and pushed her children toward the study of classical piano, buying a spinet instrument for the family's small apartment. But Williams gravitated toward dance even though he did not take to the tap dancing lessons to which he was sent at age six.
In between piano lessons, he and a friend would watch movie musicals and then go outside and try to imitate the routines on the street—while wearing roller skates. They were razzed by neighborhood youngsters, but "[i]t didn't bother me at all," Williams recalled to Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times. "I would say, ‘So? So?’ I was having a wonderful time. Small things for small minds." Williams enrolled at Manhattan's High School of Performing Arts after missing the school's music auditions but passing the dance test. His mother was initially angry about the switch, but both his parents eventually came around to support his dance career.
Williams graduated from the High School of the Performing Arts in 1958 and won a scholarship to the city's prestigious Juilliard School of music and dance. His career had already begun while he was in high school; he and a fellow student, Eleo Pomare, performed at community centers and even formed a small company called the Corybantes. His first appearance as a professional was in the musical Show Boat, performed at New York's Jones Beach in the summer of 1959. At Juilliard he alternated periods of dance classes with performances in the companies of Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, and May O'Donnell, whom he cited as a special influence. "May coaxed us to go and see what was going on out there in the dance world, and that is why I love that woman to death," Williams told Tracy. She also arranged for Williams to join the studio of modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, and he became part of the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1961.
Alvin Ailey, who occasionally took classes with Graham during this period, was another influence. "I was absolutely in awe of Alvin because he was gay and such a beautiful man," Williams told Tracy. But, although Ailey had spotted Williams near the beginning of his career and even cast him in a small role, he thought of Williams as a dancer more oriented toward ballet and turned him down several times when Williams applied to audition with the Ailey company. Williams's chance came in 1963, when Ailey needed a replacement dancer for an upcoming tour of Europe. Williams enthusiastically signed on and was flabbergasted when Ailey, in Paris, told the young dancer that he was going to learn Reflections in D, one of the signature dances usually performed by Ailey himself.
Always troubled by stage fright (he told the New Yorker that "I sweat in the palms of my hands—I wish the theatre would burn down") Williams nevertheless not only survived that first performance but also made Reflections in D his own after Ailey retired from performing. He continued to perform with the Graham company for several more years, but by 1968 he had devoted himself completely to Ailey. "I chose Alvin because his works were more human," he told Pogrebin. "Hercules I wasn't." In the late 1960s Williams suffered a knee injury; told by doctors that he would never walk again, he not only walked but danced on stage within two weeks. He credited Pilates exercises for his recovery and continued to do them through his entire career.
Williams had a peculiar position within the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in that he always danced solo. "I don't partner," he told Ailey early in his career, and as a result "I never got a lot to dance because he always had to create something special for me. I didn't grow up picking up women—that wasn't my cup of tea. I was a dancer." Ailey not only assented to this preference but also developed a memorable series of solos for Williams. Among them were the role of Lazarus rising from the dead in Mary Lou's Mass (1971, to a religious piece by jazz composer Mary Lou Williams) and that of South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela in 1986's Survivors. His most famous Ailey dance, however, was another that he took over and made his own: in "I Want to Be Ready," from Revelations, he danced to a spiritual about laying sin aside. "Williams's specialty is contained emotion, and that was perfect for this soul-testing dance," noted the New Yorker.
Dance is a physically punishing profession that frequently forces its practitioners to end their careers in their 30s or 40s, but Williams's slender, five-feet-eight, 130-pound frame seemed indestructible. He continued to dance with the Ailey company after Ailey's death in 1989, and eventually he and the new director, Ailey protégé Judith Jamison, were the only remaining veterans of the company's early days. When he retired in 2005 after 44 years of dancing, he knew of no other dancer in the United States with a longer career, and he was certainly among the most durable dancers in the entire world. A special Ailey company concert, performed at the end of 2004 to a packed City Center auditorium, paid tribute to his contributions.
Williams's retirement from the company did not mark the end of his dance career. With dancers Gus Solomons Jr. and Carmen de Lavallade, both over 60, he formed Paradigm Dance Company. The company grew, he told Stranahan, as "an accident" after a one-time appearance by the three on a program mounted by a company called Dancers Over Forty, but the concept took hold. New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning noted after a 2006 Paradigm performance at New York's Symphony Space that the company "sought to use the seasoned gifts of mature dance artists who may no longer be able to whip off a double pirouette but know nuance like nobody's business." Williams remained active as a teacher as well, and he had lost none of his enthusiasm for dancing. "Good Lord. I love it," he told Stranahan. "I absolutely love it. I think God gave me a talent and if I don't use it, shame on me. That's the way I look at it. I love dancing, I love performing, and I can still do it, why not? Why not?"
At a Glance …
Born on August 18, 1938, in New York, NY; son of Ivan (a carpenter) and Austra Williams. Education: High School of the Performing Arts, New York, 1958; attended Juilliard School, New York; studied dance in studio of Martha Graham.
Dancer, 1959-; Martha Graham Dance Company, New York, dancer, 1961; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, dancer, 1963-2005; Paradigm Dance Company, co-founder (with Gus Solomons Jr. and Carmen de Lavallade), 2005-.
Dance Magazine Award, 1997.
Booking Agent—c/o Ken Maldonado, Zia Artists, 506 Fort Washington Avenue, 1H, New York, NY 10033; Web—www.paradigm-nyc.org.
Congo Tango Palace, Talley Beatty.
Love Songs, Alvin Ailey.
Mary Lou's Mass, Alvin Ailey.
Reflections in D, Alvin Ailey.
Revelations, Alvin Ailey (includes Williams solo "I Want to Be Ready").
A Song for You, Alvin Ailey.
Survivors, Alvin Ailey.
Three Black Kings, Alvin Ailey.
International Dictionary of Modern Dance, St. James, 1998.
Dance Magazine, December 1997.
New Yorker, May 9, 2005, p. 34.
New York Times, December 13, 1984, p. C22; December 22, 2003, p. E1; December 31, 2004, p. E2; April 22, 2006, p. B11.
"Dudley Williams, A Life Spent Onstage," National Public Radio,www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4249143 (March 20, 2007).
"Free to Dance: Dudley Williams," Public Broadcasting System,www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/biographies/dwilliams.htm. (March 13, 2007).
"I Can Still Do It," AARP Bulletin,www.aarp.org/bulletin/yourlife/i_can_still_do_it.html (March 13, 2007).
—James M. Manheim
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