Tufts University

Denise Jefferson

Director, Ailey School, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

[ Biography | Honorary Degree ]

Commencement 2007

"Dancing," the great choreographer Martha Graham once said, "is discovery, discovery, discovery." Appropriately, the career of Denise Jefferson, dancer, teacher, and mentor, has been a journey of discovery.

Trained in ballet as a child, it wasn't until she was in college that Jefferson found her passion in modern dance. And she discovered her love of teaching. As director of the Ailey School at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, she is an enthusiastic advocate for dance education.

"Dance certainly champions what is unique about each person," she has said. "You don't have to be rich to dance. All you need is a body and the willingness to move that body through space."

Jefferson was born in Chicago, and at age eight, she convinced her mother to let her take dance lessons. "[My mother] did research on who the best ballet teachers were, and found Edna McRae," Jefferson told Dance magazine. "It was really strict, very serious training, and I was the only African-American in the whole school."

In Chicago at that time, modern dance hadn't really caught on—and while ballet seemed exciting, the ballet world appeared to be exclusively white, Jefferson recalled. It was only after going east, to attend Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, that Jefferson got her first experience in a modern dance class.

The crucial moment came when she took a class in Boston with the influential African-American choreographer Donald McKayle. "There was this incredible connection. I felt free and powerful, and I just loved it," she said.

Jefferson earned a bachelor's degree in French from Wheaton in 1965, then a master's degree in French from New York University. Meanwhile, she continued her dance studies, winning a scholarship to the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance and eventually joining the Pearl Lang Dance Company.

In 1974, she joined the faculty of the Ailey School, which was founded by Lang and renowned African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey in 1970. She was appointed director in 1984.

At the Ailey School, Jefferson established a joint bachelor of fine arts degree program with Fordham University at Lincoln Center in New York City. She has also taught at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts; Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina; the University of Illinois at Chicago; Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York; the London Contemporary Dance School; the National Dance Theatre of Bermuda; Bejart Rudra in Lausanne, Switzerland; and the International Summer Academy in Cologne, Germany.

She is on the board of directors of the National Association of Schools of Dance and is the organization's immediate past president. She is a panelist for the Dance Program of the New York State Council on the Arts, was vice chair of the Association for Blacks in Dance, and was president of the Emergency Fund for Student Dancers.

Jefferson sits on the board of directors of the Elisa Monte Dance Company in New York City and of Career Transitions for Dancers, a nonprofit agency. She is a trustee of Wheaton College. She serves as an evaluator of professional dance academies and college and university dance departments in the United States and abroad and has been an adjudicator for international dance competitions. Her daughter, Francesca Harper, is a dancer, choreographer, singer, and actress who has appeared on Broadway. Jefferson will receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.

This story originally ran on May 20, 2007.