A Celebration of the Life of Denise Jefferson

Members of the Ailey Dance Community Gather at the Apollo to Honor the Late Program Director


Published: November 18, 2010

On Nov. 9, more than 1000 students, dancers and staff from the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program gathered in remembrance of Denise Jefferson, the former director and founder of the B.F.A. dance program at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) who died this summer. The approximately two-hour event took place at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre.

“The main reason we chose this particular place to have the tribute was because we didn’t have enough space for all those people at our theatre here at Ailey,” Ana Marie Forsythe, current director of the Ailey School, said. However, it turned out to be a fitting site for a celebration of her life. “Denise loved the Apollo because it is the only place where all the companies can come together to perform at the same event every year.”

By 7 p.m., the audience had taken their seats and the event started with a clip from the reality show “So You Think You Can Dance” paying  tribute to Jefferson’s life. Judge Nigel Lythgoe stressed the impact that she had on the “family that is the dancing community.”

Denise Jefferson worked at Ailey since 1973 and became director of the program in 1984. In 1998, she collaborated with then dean of FCLC, Edward Bristow, to develop FCLC’s B.F.A. dance program.

“Denise’s mission as director at Ailey was to provide a safe place for dancers of all ages and experience levels to be able to express themselves freely through the art of dance,” Forsythe said.

The Ailey-organized event was one of the few in which all of its different theater groups—the Ailey School students, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Martha Graham Dance Company, and the Francesca Harper Project—performed on the same stage. The students of the Ailey School, many from FCLC, performed first. Based on their passionate performances, it was clear that all the dancers were proud to dance in Jefferson’s honor that night. The Ailey students were especially inspired by Jefferson’s dedication to the program and dance in general.

“You didn’t need to know her for that long before you realized what an amazing person she was,” Alex King,  FCLC/B.F.A. ’14, said.

Chelsea Blakeburn, FCLC ’14, agreed. “We were lucky enough to interview with her when we were applying to Fordham and it was truly an honor to get the chance to be her last class.”

Jefferson’s daughter, Francesca Harper, got a chance to perform alongside Ronald K. Brown, artistic director of Brooklyn’s Evidence Dance Company. Harper and Brown performed a very romantic, lyrical-style number that could be seen as a personification of Jefferson’s death. She spoke that night as well.

“My mother was a single mom with a definite dream,” Harper said. “She was always ready to change the world and she did.”

The most memorable part of the night was when Jefferson’s sister, Margo, spoke about her relationship with her sister, reminiscing about their childhood and joking about how headstrong and proud her elder sister was. Margo described her relationship with Jefferson as a very typical older-younger sister relationship. She said Jefferson was very critical of her, especially when it came to dance, showing her passion and knowledge even at a young age. The audience showed their appreciation for Margo’s humorous speech with a mirthful response.

“The idea behind this event was to celebrate Denise’s life as well as everything she has accomplished for the Ailey School,” Forsythe said. Harper   and a group of directors from the Ailey Program worked feverishly in order to make it a success.

This event celebrated Jefferson’s life by showing the audience the extent of her dedication to giving all dancers, regardless of their backgrounds, the opportunity to immerse themselves in dance. Jefferson’s contributions to Ailey, Fordham and the entire dance community were greatly appreciated and it appears that her mission will continue to be carried out for many years to come.