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PASS IT ON: Master teacher explores broader purposes for dance

Tyrone Aiken danced prodigiously as a youth, trained at The Ailey School as a young adult, worked as a professional dancer at the height of the New York dance ferment, and even ran his own company at one point. Today he is best known nationwide for the pioneering work as educator that has occupied him since the mid-1990s.

Tyrone represents the best traditions in teaching, which he brings to bear each time he directs the annual AileyCamp for middle schoolers, or leads a class at the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey studios, or choreographs a work of his own.

“I’ve had great teachers,” said the Friends’ chief artistic officer, who next season celebrates 30 years with the organization. “I can’t say enough about the difference that a good teacher can make in your life.”

Tyrone’s milestone joins a whole list of anniversaries in the Ailey world. AileyCamp celebrates its 35th anniversary this season, Ailey II (which performs this April 14th and 15th at the Folly Theater) its 50th, the Friends it 40th, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — which in 1958 set this whole pioneering international phenomenon into motion — its 65th.

Dance is not just art, it is a means of finding purpose, of achieving balance, as Tyrone himself learned from his early teachers. After competing in folk-dance contests at Copiague High School on Long Island and taking initial classes in ballet and jazz at Sandy’s School of Dance, one evening the youth bought himself a ticket and took the bus to the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

It was his first experience with The Nutcracker, as performed by the renowned Eglevsky Ballet: a company founded by former New York City Ballet principal dancer André Eglevsky and his wife, Leda.

The Ailey Trio in 2023: Kanji Segawa, Yazzmeen Laidler, and Jacqueline Harris (upstage).

“I was completely mesmerized,” Tyrone said, adding with a laugh: “In my head I said, that looks so easy! I want to do that.”

Dance came naturally to Tyrone, who was the ninth of 16 children and thrived in a household “where there was a lot of music and singing and instruments being played.”

At her school, Leda Eglevsky — who had studied with Michel Fokine and danced with Ballets Russes and American Ballet Theatre — made it crystal-clear that dance was serious business.

Introducing Tyrone to the rigors of classical dance, “Leda said, if you’re not going to do it three times a week, then it’s not really worth it,” Tyrone recounted. “I was in a class with 13-year-olds, and they would giggle and dance circles around me.”

Meanwhile he also attended classes at the Cultural Arts Center (now Long Island High School for the Arts), where one of his teachers was London-born ballerina Helen “Bunty” Kelley. She brought traditions of Britain’s Royal Ballet into Tyrone’s world.

Ailey II performs April 19th and 20th at the Folly Theater, hosted by Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey. / Photo by Nir Arieli

By senior year he was dancing from dawn to 11 p.m., and it was time to figure out what was next. Tyrone determined that his best option was the Certificate Program of The Ailey School in New York. There he met a host of legends, beginning with Alvin Ailey himself.

“It was an incredibly intense environment, especially for Black dancers,” he said. At Long Island schools Tyrone had often been the only Black student. “This was a place where you saw excellent Black dancers doing the work, and with wonderful teachers.”

He worked with “anybody who was anybody” at The Ailey School. “From Alvin Ailey to Donald McKayle, Ohad Naharin to Bill T. Jones.” The faculty also included such crucial figures as Denise Jefferson, Pearl Lang, and Dawn Horowitz. Of Tyrone’s original class of 113, only about 20 completed the course.

He learned a lot about teaching just from being a careful observer. “A lot of the teachers who taught my generation were all about decorum, they were about respect,” he said. “They were about this idea that there is a right way to learn, and a right way to do. It was very good to have that as a foundation.”

Tyrone’s first major professional gig was with Denver-based Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company, where he danced in television commercials and worked with Elio Pomare, Rod Rodgers, Milton Myers, and numerous others.

Returning to New York, Tyrone continued to find work with adventurous groups such as Loris Anthony Beckles’ Blue Mercury Dancing Company. “By the late 1980s, I was doing a little bit of everything,” he said.

Yet he realized that if you aren’t a full member of a large company “it’s really like a side-hustle, because you’re still having to work, or to do something else.”

Dancers performed at Setting the Stage, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. / Photo by Mike Strong 

Nevertheless around 1990 Tyrone started his own Ethos: A Dance Theater Company, a full-fledged 501(c)3 organization. Its seven dancers made New Yorkers take notice. “The work was getting good reviews, and I was getting a good following,” Tyrone said. At the same time, he was beginning to enjoy teaching more and more.  Plus it was a more reliable way to make a living.

“I had started teaching very early in my dance tenure,” he said: “And I do believe I’m the kind of person that, if I’m in the Second Grade, I could teach a First Grader.” He also began teaching at his own alma mater, the Cultural Arts Center.

“That was a lot of fun, being able to work with my former teachers, who were now colleagues — and being able to work with young students trying to figure out what they’re going to do when they grow up.”

Around this time Tyrone receive a call from Doris de Mendez, who told him they were looking for teachers for AileyCamp in Kansas City.

“Kansas City? I said.” Then, after a pause: “Okay, I’ll go.” And like so many coastal dwellers who move here, he was powerfully impressed by what he saw.

Dancers rehearsed at Paseo Academy for a 2022 performance of I Want to Testify, featuring choreography by Tyrone Aiken. / Photo by Mike Strong

“AileyCamp had a major impact on my life, because it was the first place I had been where it was not just about artistic excellence. It was about the person. And that was a sort of revolutionary concept to me.”

The expectations of AileyCamp are more directed toward personal motivation and self-direction, toward building self-esteem through dance. “You’re wanting to ground young people in this idea that if they work really hard they can achieve what they want.”

Settling here in April 1995, Tyrone began carving out a series of initiatives. He founded AileyCamp The Group in 1995 (for older students) and Setting the Stage in 1997. In 2007 he helped implement the Friends’ move to the Jazz District, also mapping out a strategic plan for the organization.

Part of the success of the AileyCamp, which is now in eight other cities around the nation, lies in leadership’s willingness to let young people help build the structure in which they operate.

Tyrone Aiken / Photo by Mike Strong

“I ask for more of a partnership,” Tyrone said, “that the young people have a voice in how things should happen, how they’re ordered, how they work.”

Just as in ballet, which is highly structured, “if you can conform to the structure, then you can find freedom in in. It works. When you allow people, even young people, to figure something out themselves, they can come up with solutions that work.”

By Paul Horsley

° Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey presents Ailey II, April 19th and 20th at the Folly Theater. Call 816-471-6003 or go to kcfaa.org.

° Other upcoming KCFAA events include the Studio Spring Concert (May 8th, Gem Theater), the Summer Dance Showcase (July 2nd, Lincoln College Preparatory Academy Middle School), and the AileyCamp 35th Anniversary Final Performance (July 15th, Folly Theater).


To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter/Instagram (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.