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The Surprising Government Agency That Helped Launch Alvin Ailey

2 minute read

When you think of modern dance you probably don’t think of the State Department next.

But that branch of the U.S. government was actually responsible for helping one of America’s most famous names in dance—the late Alvin Ailey, who would have turned 85 on Tuesday—turn his fledgling troupe into a cultural force.

“An all-round athlete in high school, [Alvin Ailey] gave up sports to join the Lester Horton Dance Studio,” TIME explained in 1965. “After 3 1/2 semesters of college, he came to Manhattan and appeared in several Broadway productions, finally saved enough to form his own small troupe. By 1961 the company had worked up to four concerts a year, ‘all the time losing money like mad.'”

It was then that the Department of State decided to send the group on a Cold War-era goodwill tour of Asia, followed by a trip to Australia that was considered one of the most important artistic events in that country’s history. As Thomas F. DeFrantz points out in the 2006 book Dancing Revelations, the State Department’s support did more than help Ailey’s troupe get off the ground. It also helped establish “African American concert dance performance as an American cultural offering.”

But it took another decade for Ailey to establish himself as one of the most recognizable names in American dance. That was a critical moment not just for his own legacy, but for the African-American dancers he championed and the broader community they represented. “Look!” TIME quoted Ailey as saying. “Look what you’ve made! Look how beautiful it is. It’s yours. You did it out of adversity. Don’t you feel a little dignity about yourself? Be proud of it.”

Read the full 1965 story, here in the TIME Vault: Out of Pride

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com