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7 Life Lessons From Dance Legend Judith Jamison

‘If you really love dance, you aim for infinity in what you’re trying to do with that instrument called your body,’ Jamison says


spinner image dancer judith jamison
Photo by Ruven Afanador

Award-winning dancer Judith Jamison, 80, joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1965 and served as its artistic director from 1989 until 2011. The largest modern dance company in the country, Ailey recently honored Jamison with a special tribute at the start of its 65th season.

Find Discipline

I’ve always loved structure. I could find structure with the piano, with the violin and, in my late teens, with dance. That discipline — and the discipline of faith — kept me on a straight path.

spinner image dancer judith jamison performing facets in nineteen seventy six
Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Connect to Genius

After joining the Ailey company, I was lucky enough to establish a spiritual connection with the greatest artist I’ve ever met, [company founder] Alvin Ailey. He would show me a step; I would move. There was very little conversation. He was like a spiritual walker.

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Build It

When I became artistic director after Mr. Ailey passed, I tried to figure out how to fulfill his vision. And it was sitting right in front of me: build our own studio, our own building. We were bursting at the seams, and Mr. Ailey had always wanted a place where dancers could come from all over the world to study. I just wish he was here to see it. There is light inside. You can feel it when you walk in.

Keep a Hand In

Even today as emerita artistic director, I like to just go into a rehearsal and see what happens. The dancers know they have to snap to it if I’m sitting in the room.

Take Care of Your Body

I took care of mine as best I could. When you’re older, you can keep it going with smaller movements. Just sitting here, I’m doing contractions and releases, trying to strengthen my core. You won’t be moving as robustly as you used to, but you can still do something.

spinner image dancer judith jamison
Photo by Ruven Afanador

Dress for Success

It’s a uniform I’ve been wearing forever: a black turtleneck that this wonderful designer from Brooklyn makes for me. Thank God I have three of them. [Laughs.]

Choose Your Family

My kids are the Ailey dancers, and they grew up right before my eyes. Now they have children, so I have a bunch of grandchildren! They send me pictures of their families, and it’s a whole other level of young people — kids, babies being born. Brings a smile to my face.

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