by Norman Warwick
Constance Stamatiou (left) started dancing when she was 5. The Charlotte, North Carolina, native knew at a young age that she wanted to entertain and live in New York City and that dancing could be the catalyst for a career in the spotlight. At 18, she attended the Ailey School, an extensive dance training program, as a fellowship student. She then moved to the Big Apple and joined Ailey II, a junior ensemble for early career dancers. Stamatiou joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2007 and now, in her 12th season with the company, is living out her dreams as a lead dancer and the face of the company’s 2023–24 season.
The 39-year-old trains each day to be less prone to injury and keep her stamina over an eight-month-long season of performing. She doesn’t feel the need to keep up with the 20-somethings in the industry as the dancing world is evolving, but she’s keenly aware of how her own body has changed. She left the company in 2011 to start her family, returning five years later. “When I was younger, it was rare to see a dancer or hear of a dancer who was past their 20s, especially one who has kids,” she said. Being a parent and being older was a career ender at the time, but Stamatiou always felt that Alvin Ailey was an exception that embraced older dancers.
Stamatiou takes pride in being a veteran in the dance company. It was overwhelming to figure out how to show up as a mother and wife, retrain her new body for dancing, and maintain her schedule while finding personal time. But she’s feeling better about the work she’s doing on herself, and it’s showing up in her personal and professional life in a big way.
“I feel like a leading lady. I’m not trying to mimic other dancers anymore. I feel like I’ve stepped into my own,” she said. Stamatiou lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. Here’s how she gets it done.
I wake up at 7 a.m. and usually get the kids up by 7:15. I typically go to Starbucks for breakfast and get a quick egg bite and a croissant. Sometimes, I eat a Spartan Meal Prep that my husband gets, which helps me because I don’t have to go out to get food. I’ll have oatmeal that’s already prepared. Once I drop off the kids, my husband will drop me off at the George Washington Bridge. I can catch a transit bus across and then catch the A train. The commute is all right as long as there’s no accident. I can get to work in 30 minutes.
Usually, once I get to Alvin Ailey, I grab the free AM New York newspaper and do the crossword puzzles. After that, I start to warm up. I try to roll out, stretch, and release my muscles. Then, I do a little conditioning to get the muscles awakened again by doing the floor bar, floor pilates, and some Gyrokinesis before the company’s ballet class.
I was a newlywed, and my husband and I wanted to have kids when I left. During that time, I was missing Ailey. I was still dancing and teaching here and there, but it just felt like something was missing. My heart kept wanting Mr. Ailey’s work. It has so much meaning, so much it was therapeutic. That’s when my journey to the gym started because, for one, you’ve got to get your body back after having two kids. It’s not the same. Secondly, I’m now in my 30s.
After rehearsal, I will go catch a class for strength training. I’m lifting weights and paying each part of my body some attention. Strength training is excellent for engaging my core and allowing me to balance more. I do a lot of cardio, especially for dances like Mr. Ailey’s Cry. It is a 16-minute solo, and you’re on the stage by yourself the entire time. It does not get any easier as you go toward the end. The pace is being brought up and so is your energy. Cardio is essential to build my stamina. If I don’t feel like going to the gym, I go to tae kwon do practice. I took an interest in it when I signed my kids up for classes.
On December 19th 2023 The Alvin Ailey ensemble delivered a special one-night-only program honouring The Pioneering Women Of Ailey: Carmen de Lavallade, Judith Jamison, Denise Jefferson, and Sylvia Waters. These four women were close friends and confidants of Alvin Ailey. They all supported his mission of delivering dance back to the people, inspired him, and ultimately left their own mark on Ailey history.
The program included a special appearance by students of The Ailey School, and works choreographed and inspired by these iconic women.
Learn more at AlvinAiley.org/CityCenter about why the company ´feels honoured to have been deeply impacted by these women´.
We owe a great deal to the many people who have helped the Ailey organization thrive throughout its 65-year history. From the time Alvin Ailey founded this Company, he relied on close friends and confidants who believed in him and his mission of delivering dance back to the people.
Most notably, Carmen de Lavallade, Judith Jamison, Denise Jefferson, and Sylvia Waters stood by him, inspired him, and ultimately left their own mark on Ailey history. Here’s why these women were so important to Ailey and why we still honor them today.
Carmen de Lavallade (right) went to high school in Los Angeles with Alvin Ailey, where it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Mr. Ailey was always enamored with her beauty and loved watching her dance. She studied modern dance with Lester Horton and eventually Mr. Ailey did too. They both were invited to become members of Horton’s company, and when he unexpectedly passed away, Alvin led the group.
However, they didn’t stay in California much longer because they were invited to Philadelphia to try out for the Broadway show House of Flowers, written by Truman Capote. They got the job, and it was during this time that Ms. de Lavallade met her husband Geoffrey Holder, who was also in the cast. The move to New York to perform the show on Broadway allowed Ms. de Lavallade to soar, becoming a star on stages and screens. She continued performing in productions across New York City and acting in movies, but always remained close with Mr. Ailey. When Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater toured Asia in 1962 he invited her along, and even billed the Company as de Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Company. This double billing helped to draw larger audiences to this newly established dance company and helped secure the international success of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
As a performer and choreographer, Ms. de Lavallade had quite an illustrious career and she remains close with everyone at the Ailey company. So, it was no surprise when in 2000 Artistic Director Judith Jamison, asked her to create a new work for the Company. The piece, titled Sweet Bitter Love, is a lyrical, poignant duet danced to classic ballads by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. Ms. de Lavallade is a wonderful storyteller and performer that, at 92 years of age, remains an inspiration to many of the Ailey dancers and audiences around the world.
After seeing Judith Jamison (left) dance when she was auditioning for Donald McKayle, Alvin Ailey tracked her down by getting her phone number from Carmen de Lavallade and asked her to join Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The rest, as they say, is history. Ms. Jamison debuted with the Company on October 30, 1965, and quickly became one of Mr. Ailey’s most prolific muses, with the ballet Cry shooting her to stardom.
After dancing for Mr. Ailey for 15 years, she went on to star on Broadway, appeared as a guest artist with ballet companies all over the world, and formed her own company, The Jamison Project. In 1989, Mr. Ailey asked her to return to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and succeed him as Artistic Director. During her 21 years of leadership (1989-2010), she put her heart and soul into Ailey just as she had done as a performer. As a leader, she took the Company to unprecedented heights—including two historic engagements in South Africa and a 50-city global tour that celebrated the Company’s 50th anniversary. In 2005 her idea of a permanent home for the Ailey organization was realized with the opening of The Joan Weill Center for Dance, named after beloved Chairman Emerita Joan Weill.
Even before she succeeded Mr. Ailey as Artistic Director of the Ailey company, she was choreographing work on the Ailey dancers. The first piece she made, Divining (1984), is still frequently performed. While leading the Company, she also choreographed Forgotten Time (1989), Hymn (1993), HERE . . .NOW. (commissioned for the 2002 Cultural Olympiad), Love Stories (with additional choreography by Robert Battle and Rennie Harris, 2004), and Among Us (Private Spaces: Public Places) (2009).
Today, as the Artistic Director Emerita of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ms. Jamison continues to play a vital role in the mentorship of Ailey’s artists and leaders. She’s one of the few people left that knew Mr. Ailey and continues to guide the organization by upholding Alvin Ailey’s mission of delivering dance back to the people.
Denise Jefferson (right) (1944-2010) was born in Chicago, Illinois, where she began her ballet studies with Edna L. McRae. She attended Wheaton College in Norton, MA, graduating with a B.A. in French; she then earned her M.A. in French from New York University. She was awarded a scholarship to the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance and began her professional career with the Pearl Lang Dance Company one year later. In 1974, Ms. Jefferson joined the faculty of The Ailey School and was appointed its Director in 1984, a position she held until her passing in 2010.
For the National Association of Schools of Dance, she was President, Vice-President, Secretary, a member of the Board of Directors, Chairperson of the Commission on Accreditation and Dance Chairperson of ACCPAS. She was also a panelist for the Dance Program and a former Appeals Panel member of the New York State Council on the Arts. Ms. Jefferson was the Vice-Chairperson of the International Association for Blacks in Dance and a former President of the Emergency Fund for Student Dancers. She was an adjudicator and a master teacher for the ARTS program sponsored by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. She served on the Boards of Directors for the Elisa Monte Dance Company and Career Transitions for Dancers, as well as on the Board of Trustees of Wheaton College. She was also a member of the Advisory Boards of the Professional Children’s School and the University of Oklahoma’s Dance Department. Ms. Jefferson served as an evaluator of professional dance academies and college and university dance departments in the US and abroad and as an adjudicator at international dance competitions. She taught at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Benedict College, University of Illinois (Chicago), Sarah Lawrence College, London Contemporary Dance School, National Dance Theatre of Bermuda, Rudra Béjart and the International Summer Academy in Cologne, Germany. Ms. Jefferson was awarded honorary Doctorates of Fine Arts from Wheaton College and Tufts University.
Sylvia Waters was personally selected by Alvin Ailey in 1974 as Artistic Director of Ailey II and led the company for 38 years. A graduate of The Juilliard School, Ms. Waters earned a B.S. in Dance prior to moving to Paris, where she appeared regularly on television. She toured in the European company of Black Nativity and worked with Michel Descombey, then director of the Paris Opera Ballet, as well as Milko Šparembleck. She also performed in Donald McKayle’s European production of Black New World and worked with Maurice Béjart’s company performing in Brussels and at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. In 1968, Ms. Waters joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and toured with the Company until assuming leadership of Ailey II. She has received honorary doctorates from the State University of New York at Oswego and The Juilliard School, and she has served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. Ms. Waters is a recipient of the Legacy Award as part of the 20th Annual IABD Festival, Syracuse University’s Women of Distinction Award, a Dance Magazine Award, and a “Bessie” Award.
How wonderful and spectacular it must have been to see these women honoured by dance in this way, and how typical it seems of the Alvin Ailey Dance organisation to do so.