I See You

Sean Aaron Carmon Explains Why Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Is So Important

"When you don’t see anyone that resembles you doing the things that you’re training to do, it is disheartening and disappointing."

By David Clarke March 12, 2018

Alvin ailey american dance theater s sean aaron carmon in south africa. photo by andrew eccles  vmg1lm

New York's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns to Houston this weekend for a three-show engagement.

Sean Aaron Carmon’s life unexpectedly changed when he saw himself reflected by New York's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. At first, it was Ailey’s opening night performance of Twyla Tharp’s “The Golden Section” in 2006, and then it was watching his friend Daniel Harder dance Christopher Huggins’ “Enemy Behind the Gates.” After that, Carmon knew once and for all there was room for him in the normally lily-white world of dance.

“When I saw that people that looked like me could do things that I had only ever seen white people do—and more—I knew that this was a place that I needed to dance,” the Beaumont-born dancer says. “I wanted to be a part of that continuum.”

That brush with onstage representation pushed Carmon to transfer from New York University to a joint program offered by Alvin Ailey and Fordham University. And in 2011, he joined the Alvin Ailey company to join other artists of color performing with power, grace, poise, and majesty onstage. “When you don’t see anyone that resembles you doing the things that you’re training to do, it is disheartening and disappointing,” Carmon says. “You really don’t feel that you, as an individual, can break through that barrier.”

“I saw people my age doing things that I had no idea that were even possible—moving faster than I had ever seen. And, they were brown-skinned,” Carmon adds. “They all had this technique that was so stellar, so honed, and so trained.”

Alvin ailey american dance theater s sean aaron carmon.  photo by andrew eccles bni61w

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Sean Aaron Carmon.

Image: Andrew Eccles

That kind of representation has always been part of the company’s identity; the eponymous Alvin Ailey was a black dancer who made waves in the late ‘50s for performing works inspired by African dance techniques and set to blues music. For a time, the troupe was explicitly all-black, and, although it integrated in 1963, the mission still explicitly works to honor African American heritage.

Now halfway through a nation-spanning tour, the company will stop in Houston this weekend to perform a three-day program featuring world premiere Members Don’t Get Weary, a blues-inspired work set to the music of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. Other works include Shelter, which contemplates the homeless experience, and Revelations, Ailey’s timeless meditation on grief, joy, and spirituality inspired by his childhood in small-town Texas.

With dancers representing the African American, Japanese American, and South American communities (among others), Carmon describes the troupe's role as like Black Panther—Marvel’s first movie featuring a black superhero that just surpassed $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales. Both “share the wealth” of representation by foregrounding the stories and talents of artists of color, an experience Carmon says is all too rare, even today.

“If watching the Ailey company and seeing movies like Black Panther is what white Americans get to experience every single day, I understand why it has been so difficult to get more brown skinned people in that space,” he says. “When you see a large number of people doing your thing that you’ve been training to do your entire childhood, inspiring is not even the word. It’s a feeling that is quite frankly indescribable.”

March 16–18. Tickets from $40. Jones Hall, 615 Texas Ave. 713-227-4772. More info and tickets at spahouston.org.

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