Jamison, Judith (1943—)

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Jamison, Judith (1943—)

African-American dancer and choreographer . Born on May 10, 1943, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; only daughter and one of two children of John Jamison (a sheet-metal mechanic) and Tessie (Bell) Jamison (a part-time teacher); attended Philadelphia public schools; studied dance at the Judimar School of Dance, Philadelphia; attended the Philadelphia Dance Academy and John Kerr's Dance School; married Miguel Godreau (a dancer), in December 1972 (divorced).

Described as regal in stature and glorious in motion, the 5'10" Judith 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. In addition to her "commanding presence," 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, 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 Alley American Dance Center, the company's official school. As one of the few women to head up a major dance company, she remains a powerful force in the dance world.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 10, 1943, Judith Jamison was 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 had 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. At the Judimar School of Dance, she 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, 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, 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." 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, Jamison remained in New York so she would be available to audition for other companies. To help pay the rent, she took a job at the World's Fair as an assistant operator of the Log-Flume Ride.

Another break came in 1965, when 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. Jamison made her debut with the Dance Theater in Conga Tango Palace at the Harper Festival in Chicago later in 1965, and, in December of that year, she danced in Ailey's Revelations at a dance series at Hunter College in New York. She then joined the troupe on a whirlwind tour of Western Europe, with a side trip to the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, at which the Ailey troupe was the only integrated company to perform.

In 1966, when the Ailey company temporarily disbanded due to financial difficulties, Jamison joined the Harkness Ballet for several months; she also undertook further ballet training with Patricia Wilde and Raymond Segarra. Performing opportunities for Jamison were limited with the Harkness troupe, although she did dance in several works with Tim Harum, one of the tallest men in ballet at the time. Her association with the Harkness ended when she injured her ankle in a fall on a slippery floor.

After recuperating, Jamison rejoined the Ailey company for its 1967 European tour. Over the course of the next 13 years, she reached her zenith as a dancer, performing in a number of memorable roles, some of which were created especially for her. An early role was that of Voudoun Erzuile in Geoffrey Holder's The Prodigal Prince, which she danced at its premiere at Hunter College in January 1968 and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that April. "Miss Jamison is a marvelous all-around performer," wrote Deborah Jowitt in the Village Voice (April 11, 1968), "extravagantly tall with a purring kind of strength and a leap that looks as if she had been poured upward." Jamison was also memorable as the Mother in Ailey's new work Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which premièred at the Edinburgh Festival in September 1968.

By the time the Ailey troupe made its initial appearance on Broadway in 1969, Jamison had attracted quite a following. In that short, sell-out season, she performed in Talley Beatty's The Black Belt and fairly dazzled audiences as the Sun in Lucas Hoving's Icarus. At the Brooklyn Academy's Festival of Dance in the winter of

1969–70, Jamison excelled in two new works: Michael Smuin's Panambi, and Ailey's controversial Masakela Language. Walter Terry's review of the latter piece in the Saturday Review (December 13, 1969) was one among many glowing notices. "Her solo of agonized, but curiously contained loneliness was brilliantly conceived—but that might have been expected of a young woman who is darkly beautiful, whose technique is dazzling, and whose artistry makes her the undisputed prima of the Ailey company."

Another high point for Jamison was her performance of Ailey's Cry, a solo piece created especially for her and dedicated to "all black women everywhere—especially our mothers." In the dance, which depicts the experiences of black women, Jamison was lauded by Clive Barnes, critic for The New York Times (May 1, 1971). "Miss Jamison dances with great control, and although her work has obviously been greatly influenced, via Ailey, by the Lester Horton West Coast Style, … it is also strongly tinged with classic dance. The result, added to her lithe and statuesque physique, is fascinating." Ailey created other notable roles for Jamison, including one in Mary Lou's Mass, a piece choreographed to Mary Lou Williams ' jazz Mass, and another in The Lark Ascending, which she danced with Clive Thompson. In 1972, at the height of her performing career, Jamison received the Dance Magazine Award, and was also honored by President Richard Nixon, who appointed her an advisor to the National Council of the Arts.

In 1980, Jamison left the Ailey company to perform in the Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies. She was also a guest performer with a number of other companies and pursued her interest in creating her own choreography. Ailey encouraged her in this endeavor, having his company perform her first piece, Divining, in 1984. Jamison went on to form her own dance company, the Jamison Project, which made its debut in 1988.

In 1989, when Jamison succeeded Alvin Ailey as director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, any anxieties about the future of the company were put to rest. Viewing her goal as "not to stand in Alvin's shadow, but on his shoulders," Jamison embraced the company's historic mission of preserving works by pioneering black choreographers. Ailey's legacy was evident in the repertory for the 1990–91 season, the first under Jamison's direction. It included a revival of Ailey's Hidden Rites and his Revelations and Blues Suites, as well as Kris World's Read Matthew 11.28, created in 1988 for the Jamison Project, Lar Lubovitch's North Star,Pearl Primus ' Impinyuza, and Jamison's own Forgotten Time. Jamison also continued Ailey's efforts to bring women to the forefront of the company's work, collaborating with and commissioning women choreographers and dancers, and presenting works portraying women. She wrote a moving memory piece about Ailey called Hymn, with a libretto by Anna Deveare Smith .

Along with directing the dance company, Jamison took over the responsibility for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, a satellite school attended by over 3,000 students. During her tenure, 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.

Throughout the 1990s, Jamison's efforts were rewarded with several ground-breaking achievements, including an emotional 15-day tour of South Africa in June 1997, the first time the company had visited the African nation. South African officials called the visit, which included hands-on workshops along with performances, an inspiration and an "end of a long drought." The trip was a dream of Jamison's since Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990. "This is my homeland, my lineage. South Africans are not the same as African Americans, but we greet each other as brothers and sisters because we've both been through turmoil and we understand that. We have so much to learn from them, and they have a lot to learn about us."

Jamison was among the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors and was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Massachusetts, both 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."


Grant, Diane C. "The Women of Ailey," in The Boston Globe. April 23, 1995.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1973. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1973.

Sancton, Thomas. "Back to Their Roots" in Time. June 30, 1997, pp. 69–70.

Smith, Jessie Carney. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

suggested reading:

Jamison, Judith, with Howard Kaplan. Dancing Spirit. NY: Doubleday, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts