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Fordham Mourns Longtime Ailey School Director


Fordham University mourns the death of Denise Jefferson, director of the Ailey School and co-founder of the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program in Dance. Jefferson died of ovarian cancer on July 18.

A skilled dancer herself, Jefferson had served on the faculty of the internationally acclaimed dance school, affiliated with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, since 1974 and had been its director since 1984. In 1998, Jefferson collaborated with Edward J. Bristow, Ph.D., professor of history and former dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), to create the unique degree program at FCLC that offers a blend of liberal arts classes and conservatory training in dance.

Denise Jefferson

The program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2008, is one of FCLC’s most popular and has graduated approximately 200 students, many who go on to work as professional dancers.

“Denise Jefferson was a woman of tremendous  artistry, energy, and rigor as well as a great teacher,” said Robert Grimes, S.J., dean of FCLC. “She is one of the main reasons the Ailey-Fordham collaboration has been so successful.”

“Denise was a very fine woman, sympathetic to the academic needs of artists,” added Bristow, who has worked with Jefferson over the years to administer the program. “She understood that providing a strong education for young dancers could not only make them more fulfilled individuals, but in many cases better dancers.”

Bristow credited Jefferson with the idea for an Ailey-Fordham collaboration, inspired initially by a small ballet-centered program at the University of Hartford. He recalled that the two of them struck up a conversation in 1995 while waiting on a long line at the W. 60th Street post office: Jefferson said “Ed, what about a B.A. in dance?”

Jefferson later modified her idea to create a BFA rather than a straight academic degree. Together, Bistrow and Jefferson established a committee of representatives from both Ailey and Fordham to design a workable program. The new degree was then advertised nationwide in dance journals, attracting 250 dancers to its first wave of auditions.

Today, entrance into the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program in Dance is highly competitive, with an annual acceptance rate of approximately 10 percent.

“Denise’s idea for our collaborative dance program was inspired,” said Bristow. “Her permanent legacy will be the splendid opportunities she helped create for gifted dancers to reach their potential.

“She also provided Fordham with one of its best—and surely its most visible—programs.”

Jefferson held a bachelor’s degree in French from Wheaton College and a master’s in French from New York University. She is survived by her mother, Irma Jefferson; her sister Margo Jefferson; and a daughter, Francesca Harper.


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