School Buzz: Remembering Denise Jefferson

The dance world lost one of its pillars this summer with the passing of Denise Jefferson, The Ailey School’s director.

Denise Jefferson, photo by Andrew Eccles

Following a performance career with Pearl Lang Dance Company, Jefferson began teaching at The Ailey School in 1974. A decade later, Alvin Ailey appointed her director. During her 26 years at the helm, Jefferson (affectionately known as “Ms. J”) significantly expanded the school’s junior and professional divisions and developed the Ailey/Fordham BFA program.

Jefferson is credited with helping launch the careers of countless professional dancers. Nearly 90 percent of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s current dancers, including Matthew Rushing and Clifton Brown, trained at The Ailey School during Jefferson’s tenure as director. Other notable former students include Desmond Richardson, artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet Company; Vivian Nixon, an ensemble dancer in Broadway’s Memphis; and Shayla-Vie Jenkins, a dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

“She always pushed young dancers to pursue their dreams,” says Yannick Lebrun, a dancer with AAADT. “She was very generous with her knowledge of dance and I’ll always remember her wisdom.”

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