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Judith Jamison Read by Jacqueline Green

Once upon a time, there was a girl in a red-checkered shirt, long blue jeans, and pink ballet shoes, who was determined to change the world through dancing. Her name is Judith Jamison.

Jaqueline Green is a ballet dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Isaac Kaplan-Woolner with sound design and mixing by Bianca Salinas. It was written by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Jacqueline Green. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Once upon a time, there was a girl in a red-checkered shirt, long blue jeans, and pink ballet shoes, who was determined to change the world through dancing. 

Her name… is Judith. 

I’m Jaqueline Green, and this is a Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls mini edition, a fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. I followed my dream to become a ballet dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. And I’m so excited to share this dream-seeking story with you. 

On this episode one of my personal heroes, someone who ALSO danced with – and eventually became the artistic director of –  the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She is the amazing Judith Jamison! 

Judith was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1943. As a little girl, she says she was so skinny, her legs went up to her armpits! She was also pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, which meant her toes and knees pointed at each other instead of straight ahead. She had to wear special shoes to help her walk. Still, when Judith was six years old, she insisted that she wanted to go to dance school. Her parents didn’t know what to expect, but they said… okay.
Judith went to the Judimar School of Dance, which was in a studio on the second floor of a rickety old building in Philadelphia. Her teacher, Ms. Cuyjet, (SOO-ZHAY) had wide green eyes and red hair, and she was determined to make ballet accessible to young Black dancers just like Judith. 

That first day, as Judith stepped into the studio, the floors felt slippery under her ballet shoes. Everyone took their place at the wooden barre that dancers hold onto for support during their warm-up exercises. 

Ms. Cuyjet went through all the basics — first position, second position, plie, releve. Judith was mesmerized by her teacher, following her instructions diligently. 

The Judimar School became Judith’s second home. She studied ballet, tap, modern dance, and even acrobatics! 

For Judith, dancing was more than just following the steps she was taught. It was a way for her to communicate with her body. A way to connect everyone and tell stories through movement.

As time passed, Judith worked hard with dance teachers and tutors, honing her skills. She grew graceful, flexible, and strong. When she was 21, she was asked to be part of the American Ballet Theatre in New York City, which was a huge honor. 

But a year later, she left to become part of a revolutionary new dance company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ailey’s company was dedicated to bringing modern dance and African-American culture together. 

For her first performance with them, the stage was set up to look like an imaginary ballroom. Judith wore a fabulous ruffled skirt over her leotard and spun across the stage with ferocious energy. 

The audience went wild, clapping with joy and appreciation. 

After the company’s final bows that night, it was clear that Judith, with her strength and passion, was destined to become a lead dancer at Alvin Ailey, and soon, an international star.

Over the next 15 years, Mr. Ailey choreographed many famous and difficult dances for Judith and the other dancers to perform. One of the most well-known dances is “Cry”, which celebrates the power of all Black women. 

Judith poured her heart into every step of “Cry.” From the second the lights went up she was hypnotizing. 

Dressed in a white leotard and a billowy white skirt, she rippled across the stage like the crest of a giant wave. She was elegant, fierce, and unstoppable. “Cry” became one of her signature dances, and people came from all over the world to see her perform it. 

Throughout her career, Judith also got to tour with different dance companies, and tap dance on Broadway. She even formed her own company, called The Jamison Project. 

When Mr. Ailey had to leave his company because he was sick, he asked Judith to take over for him, and she said yes. She led the Alvin Ailey troupe for the next 21 years and became like a mom to all of her dancers, inspiring them to push themselves farther and let their emotions become part of their movement.

To this day, Judith mentors dancers all over the world, and talks about the power of dance. As she says, “it’s more than just moving our bodies in certain ways. It’s a way of communicating with the audience. Without saying a single word.” 

For Judith, dancing is her way of “honoring the past, celebrating the present and fearlessly reaching into the future.”