Renee Robinson is a legendary American dancer who, on December 9th, 2012 at City Center in New York City, danced her last dance as the iconic woman with the umbrella in “Revelations,” one of the most popular and recognizable dances in modern history. Robinson has retired after over thirty years with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, her tenure being the longest of any female dancer in the history of the company. She was the last dancer in the company to have been chosen by Alvin Ailey himself.
Robinson was trained in classical ballet at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in Washington D.C. She was awarded two Ford Foundation scholarships to the School of American Ballet and received full scholarships to the Dance Theater of Harlem School and The Ailey School. She was a member of Ailey II before joining the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1981. She has performed at the White House several times and was awarded a Dance Magazine Award in 2012.
The first time I saw Robinson perform, I was a child. Nearly two decades later, she continued to entrance me as she moved across the stage with infectious energy and otherworldy grace. As the New York Times wrote in tribute to the retiring star, “The way she turns that head and those eyes to different points in the theater — aiming never at the rehearsal mirror but always at you, you, you and me — has long been a thrill. So has been the sheer power and sensuality of her dancing.”
What was your first exposure to dance?
Right beside my school they had a recreation center. And a part of the many activities that were offered were dance classes. I don’t remember the type of dance that I was involved in, I just remember movement. I don’t know if it was the same year, but I was still pretty young, when my family went to a football/dance/all kinds of sports activities camp, just for one day. You could try a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and of course I wanted to try the dance camp. The lady who conducted it, she told my mother that she thought I had talent. She gave my mother the name of a dance school in Washington D.C. that would accept students of color, because at the time there were not ballet schools in D.C. that would accept students of color. It was the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet – a very, very strict school. Their goal was to produce professional ballet dancers. When I went to audition, they liked my body. My parents didn’t have extra money for dance classes, so it was arranged that I would have scholarship support. I was ten years old. And that is basically where a big part of the story begins.
Were the arts a big part of your family culture?
I don’t remember dance or the arts being specifically spotlighted in my upbringing at home, no.
I’ll tell you what was a part of the family culture. [Laughs. ] My mother always believed – and she still does to this day – that children should be involved in more than just their schoolwork; they should have other activities that help to develop them as people. It was just a part of the education of our house: Nope, you can’t just sit and do nothing. You can’t just go to school, come home, and do your homework. You have to have some other activity that you are involved in. Sometimes she would choose, but she was very open to letting us choose. But if she chose and we didn’t want to do it, we had to try it at least once. That was the rule.
So, dance just sort of fell under her belief that if children are not exposed to different things when they are growing up, how will they know what they want to do? And exposing your kids to things also gives them a chance to interact with different people in different ways, to learn other things beside what their school is teaching them or what they are learning at home. And how to interact with the public on other levels. To interact with people who are not doing what you are doing at home. Just building a broader, young person who hopefully will go on as an adult and have a broader view of her neighbor or her neighborhood.
Sounds like you have a very wise mother.
[Laughs. ] Yeah, and it was a strict rule. You know, you go through certain times in certain periods when you’re just like, “I don’t want to do anything!!” “Uh-uh, you’re gonna do something. Either you choose or I will find something.”
She may have gotten more than she gambled for, right? Because there you were, going to dance classes as an extracurricular activity, and then you ended up dedicating a whole life to dance!
Tell me about the Jones-Haywood School.
Well, when I started I would only go on Saturdays because I was quite young. But I stayed on up through graduating high school and then I started to take classes more frequently after school. They had a small, teeny-tiny, regional company called the Capital Ballet Company and I became a member of that, giving a few performances throughout the year – nothing big.
I would have to take the bus after school [to ballet class] and it was a long way from where I lived. I remember the bus ride being at least forty-five minutes to an hour in each direction. My mother would pick me up after class. I remember that when I got my license, I was happy but I am pretty sure my mother was happier – because she didn’t have to take me or pick me up from dance school anymore!
You said it was a very strict school, can you tell me more about that?
The school was named after the two teachers, Claire Heywood and Doris W. Jones. The school only had one studio, and the studio was attached to their house. When I was there it was a very big deal that one of their students, who was older than myself, had been invited to Russia to compete. She was the first black female…something along those lines. So it was a really big deal. I remember I would arrive at the school early and they were rehearsing her. I remember watching her and how intense it was. Hearing them speak to her about not only the seriousness of the invitation and the magnitude of it, but how she had to work hard; every day it had to be better, every day it had to be consistent. And what she would be representing. It was a whole big deal, planning for the trip… I just remember overhearing it.
So, it was not the type of school where you could go and have fun experience in dance class. It was not that kind of environment. When you came to dance class, it was serious. I learned a lot about performing and being responsible for your presentation at an early age. A lot of discipline.
Did you, at that early age, begin to think about becoming a professional dancer? After all, the environment you were in was very professionally oriented.
I don’t think it was a burning desire. I remember enjoying taking dance classes but many, many times I wanted to quit. On the days my feet wouldn’t point they way they were supposed to point, or when the teacher was getting on me about my arms, or just when I had a hard day in dance class, I remember coming out to the car and being sad or crying and saying that I wanted to quit, that I was done. Well, rule number two for both my brother and myself: we couldn’t quit anything because it was tough. If I had come out of a great class and done well and felt good but said I thought I was done with dance, then it would have been okay. That was very much a part of my discipline.
I just found that on the days when things were going well, I enjoyed dancing, I enjoyed being a part of the small company, but I definitely remember that it was not something where I thought, “As soon as I graduate from high school the first thing I will do is move to New York and audition for some of the larger companies so that I can become a professional dancer.” Maybe it was something I heard my parents say or it was from growing up in Washington D.C. where it is all politics or law, but law was kind of in my head, the idea of becoming an attorney. There were days when I thought it would be fun to dance in a company and there were days when I thought that dance wouldn’t be too serious after high school. It went in and out.
So what did happen after high school? Because you did continue to dance.
I did. I applied to a few universities and chose New York University as a dance major and an economics minor. I received scholarship support from NYU for my talent. So I went for one year. When the summer came and my friends and I were deciding what to do for the summer, my goal was not to dance. I had made a good, good friend and we were going to go to Paris for the summer and learn to speak French and wait on tables and then come back in the fall and finish school. But I had some friends who said, “You are really talented, you should audition for some scholarships here in the city. You never know.” Alvin Ailey was at the top of the list. And I got a scholarship to the Ailey school. And then I fell in love with dance. [Laughs. ]
Maybe because Ailey is a whole different kind of dance from the classical ballet you had been dancing?
Yeah, but it was more than the classes. My school was very small in Washington – only one studio, all the students were Washingtonian. And here, coming to a school where there were students from all over the world and the excitement of New York City and all the kinds of classes that were going on… It opened up another world for me. More than just opening different spaces of dance disciplines, it was another world. I loved the teachers, I loved everything about it.
And as I learned more about the company, the extensive amount of traveling they did, learning about Alvin’s philosophy, and falling love with all the first company members, looking up to them, that is when I fell in love with dance and left school – with the intention of going back…
Wait, wait! This is some major stuff! From going from a place where you thought you would eventually stop with dance to leaving college to dance…!
In my mind it was just a leave of absence. And that is what I told people. My mother threatened to kill me [Laughs]. She stopped talking to me for quite a while. Because school was the important thing. And I totally agree.
But when the scholarship was finished, I was asked to be a part of the workshop company [at Ailey], which was run by Kelvin Rotardier who had also been a former member of the first company. We did performances around the city. After that, I was asked to join Ailey II. It took two times of auditioning before I got into the main company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And the rest is history.
How long would you say that it was between when you quit school at NYU and when you actually joined the main company at Alvin Ailey?
At least four or five years.
During that time, did you have other jobs to support yourself?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. I worked at a cafe with a friend. I worked at a little gallery in Brooklyn. I just answered the phone, I was the receptionist. It was great, just great. Because I love art and it wasn’t hard, like waiting tables. Those two jobs I remember the most, but I am sure I had others. Because my mother said, “You’re leaving school, you’re on your own.”
A tough mama.
Yes, and rightfully so. Like I said, I had great intentions of returning to school. And I had that opportunity, I received my Master’s Degree in dance just this past August.
From Hollins University. The rift has been repaired between myself and my mom. [Laughs. ]
I hope earlier than that!
It did. Once I started traveling with the company and she saw that this thing that I had left school for, I was actually able to make a living on. I was being a responsible adult, and I was seeing the world. I was having exposure, and you know that had her vote. [Laughs. ]
But you did have a period when there was tension between the two of you. That must have been hard on you.
It was. It really, really was. I remember that she did talk to me, but they were always short conversations and it was always, “Okay, how long are you going to be in the workshop company?” “Well how long are you going to be in Ailey II?” “Well, you know you have to go back to school. Have you contacted the school…?” It was mostly conversations like that. In between I would tell her about the exciting things that were happening.
And most of the time I was in the studio, because that is a dancer’s life. When I wasn’t in the studio I was working to support myself.
Did your mother come to see any of your shows when you were in Ailey II, for instance?
I don’t remember her seeing any of the Ailey II performances.
Maybe she was taking a stand.
Yeah, she’s feisty!
My brother is five years younger than I am, so he was still at home and she was really on lockdown with him. He was heavy, heavy into the football, but I am sure in her mind she was thinking, “Okay, I won’t lose another child to a ‘passion.’ This one is going to finish high school, he is going to finish college, I don’t care what I have to do!!”
What was life like for you during your early New York years? Who were you hanging out with?
Mostly other dancers. I think, like with any profession – whether you are a doctor or a lawyer – if you’re very, very into it, the company that you keep are usually heavily into it as well. So, yeah, I was around dancers all the time. Maybe I shouldn’t say that was a bad thing, but coming from a family where exposure to a broader experiences than just what you are experiencing was what I heard my whole life… Then, getting into the company, Alvin Ailey insisted that the dancers continue to learn about life.
He was channeling your mother!
Yeah! I thought, “I guess this is my life, this man is saying the same thing.” He said the only way you can give the audience a rich experience is if they are seeing dancers who have something more to say besides just showing and sharing their great technique and beauty. That is the kind of dancer he wanted, a person who continued to learn about life so that you would be an interesting person on the stage.
What did you do beyond dance?
We took what Mr. Ailey said to heart and whenever we could – even if it meant getting up early – when you were in a city or in a country for the first time or in a city where a wonderful exhibition was going on, you would get up early and you would go see it, even if you had to run through it really fast. Picking up books about anything, going to museums, picking up magazines, just trying to get stuff in there in any way I could. And sharing it with my fellow dancer.
Life on the road can be thrilling but also quite tiring, right?
I love to travel – that is probably part of the exposure thing that I heard as a mantra in my ear when I was younger. I love learning about other people and other cultures, so I like travelling now even with the fatigue that comes with it.
I’m wondering more about those early years in New York and what life was like. Where were you living, for instance?
I was very lucky that I didn’t have to do very much moving around. Early on I got my own place and had a steady roommate for many, many, many years. Who was not a dancer. We both were very practical kinds of individuals, came from very strict upbringings. You made things happen, and you took care of yourself in a quality way. I still live in the same building where I lived with the roommate.
I love the building. It’s on the Upper West Side. Early on, I was in this location, so it gave me stability. I was never someone who wanted to jump around. I recognized my blessing and it worked for me. When I came back from traveling, I needed to have that feeling that something was stable and constant.
When you had money, what did you spend it on? What were your indulgences?
Taking care of my dance clothes, buying more dance supplies. I sketch, I draw, so I probably I bought a sketch pad and some tools now and then… But, you know, it was very little money. It probably all went to my rent and eating and transportation. I do remember going to the movies a lot. Seeing dance performances on a regular basis was out of my budget. So it was probably the cinema, I liked going to the movies in New York.
Do you have any good stories from those years?
You know, I was pretty regular. I didn’t go out to the clubs…I wasn’t one of those party animals, I didn’t have a big group of friends I went out with. I had a small group of friends. I liked being at home, watching TV.
That makes sense because as a dancer, your body is your instrument. Drinking and partying is not the way to build a long career for your instrument, so to speak.
I wasn’t a drinker, I wasn’t a smoker, I didn’t do recreational drugs. I was just pretty regular. The close friends that I had, I enjoyed their company. And whatever money I could save, I saved. That is one thing I do tell young dancers to do, especially now when the world is very different and everything is so expensive.
There were a lot of things that were free when I was younger. When I was younger it was easier to walk into a dance performance during intermission, it was almost expected. Probably the ushers looked at you and knew you were a young dancer and didn’t bother you. I don’t feel that same energy here in New York now. It just felt like a freer time. I hear this coming out of a more mature woman, and I remember when I was a young person hearing other more mature people saying, “It was a more freer time when we were younger…” So I guess each generation says the same things.
Of course, there were no cell phones. When you made an appointment to meet someone, you met them. You didn’t send them a text saying you were running late and all that… You made plans to see people and you showed up. You memorized people’s phone numbers. Those little things. You had to interact with people. You had to have one to one experiences. You had to get out of the house, you had to be physical, because you weren’t going to be sitting in front of a computer screen having a virtual reality experience.
Those first years, before getting into the company, that is what I continued to do, because there was no computer monitor to keep me engaged. I got up in the morning and got out of the house and continued to explore New York City. New York is so rich. Discovering new neighborhoods or discovering Central Park again, and again, and again.
When you were younger, what was your idea of success?
When I was in high school it was about graduating university, becoming an attorney. I think that is probably where it stopped in my head. After that everything seemed to fall into place. The people who were attorney’s who I looked up to had a home, and a car, they traveled or had exciting cases that they were working on.
I know that in this day and age that we live in, success is about fifteen minutes of fame, or success overnight – like starting a technology company today and selling it for like a billion dollars two years later and that is success. Success is having people say, “I saw you on television!” Or, “You were the winner of So You Think You Can Dance!” It was a different time. I didn’t look at money the same way I look at it now, because things were just more affordable. You didn’t have to have a ton of money to have a good way of life. Things weren’t so expensive as they are now. Joy came from other things besides just what money could buy you, in my young head.
Of course now, as we sit here and have this conversation, it is tragic that students go to college and leave with a ton of debt and possibly won’t be able to go into the field that they were studying. And they may have graduated at their top of their class! They may have to take a job that they have to take, because they need to get rid of the student debt. I am sure there was some of that when I was younger, but it wasn’t as astronomical as it is now. During that time it was probably more accessible that what you studied in school would be what you were going to do for a living and you were able to be calm about raising a family. That would have been, as a young person, the vision of success.
What about today?
Oh goodness. This answer is going to sound odd. But, first things first: having good health. The thing I feel that is most important, because without it you can’t get to any of the other things, is good health. Healthy lifestyle. For me, that incorporates having access to healthy choices of food, being able to feed your body well. Being around positive people. This sounds so hokey, but being around people who see the glass half-full instead of half-empty and who enjoy what they do – that helps to keep you healthy. If you have your health, then you have the possibility of going after whatever it is. But if you don’t even have that to start with…
I can sit here and name a few other things that I think represent success, but to me, there has to be a base to start from.
This is something you have really lived by. You have been performing with Ailey for over thirty years. That is completely astounding, especially in a company that is so physically demanding. There is no way you can do that without the focus you’ve had on tuning your instrument, if you will. Do you have any advice for young artists and performers?
Make food your medicine, not your poison. Of course meaning food that you eat, but also the company that you keep, things that you expose yourself to. It can be your medicine or your poison. Be around people who are full of life and want to talk about things, so that your energy is not drained in talking about negative things. That would be it.
That is very good.
Because from there – I do believe and I see it – anything is possible, all kinds of flowers can bloom, all kinds of ideas can come to life, because you’re excited, you’re excited about the moment, about the choreographer who has come in, about making it into the ballet – maybe you didn’t make it into first cast, but you’re in the room! As long as you are in the room, the choreographer can see you, you can listen to the things that can move you up to first cast. But even if you’re not in first cast now, in a company like Ailey, they perform so much that you’ll make it onto the stage at some point. And the audience doesn’t know if they’re seeing first cast or not, they just know they came to see a beautiful performance. And that is your work.
That is your work.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photos courtesy of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater