“I don’t normally go out on a school night! I’m a teacher. I get up at 4:45 in the morning,” she said shortly before the December 13 performance. “But for this? I am willing to make that sacrifice.”
The show has been a long time coming for Ruffin. She has been an Ailey fan for years—“If you are an inner-city Black girl, you’ve heard of Alvin Ailey,” she said of the famed company, founded and fronted by the boundary-breaking eponymous Black dancer. But she hadn’t been to a show since 2000. A lot of life has passed since then. Ruffin went to Fordham’s Graduate School of Education and earned a master’s degree. Now she teaches seventh-grade public schoolers in Manhattan. And she somehow missed the part where Fordham brags about its partnership with the Ailey School. Since 1998, the two institutions have been offering a joint BFA program through which students learn dance at Ailey while getting a full liberal arts education at Fordham College at Lincoln Center.
“I had no idea that Fordham had this connection with Alvin Ailey. And if I would have known that, I would have been humming and bumming for tickets for my teachers a long time ago,” Ruffin said. Does it lend Fordham a little—“Street cred? Absolutely!” Ruffin beamed. “Fordham never—I must admit, they do not cease to surprise me.”
The bond between Fordham and Ailey was on full display that Tuesday evening. The alumni event attracted a varied cohort. Couples, young and old, chatted over wine and cheese plates in the 100-year-old theater’s gilded lobby. Lovers of modern dance came alone; others brought friends. There were families—a couple of teenage daughters sat off to the side on marble stairs, avoiding small talk. Fordham trustee emeritus John Costantino, GABELLI ’67, LAW ’70, did not. “A lot of the programs tonight, they really relate to people,” he said. “They mean something.”
Costantino was talking about the dances—including choreographer Jamar Roberts’ In a Sentimental Mood, which had its world premiere earlier in the year, and three classics by Ailey, who died in 1989: Reflections in D, Cry, and of course Revelations, the 1960 piece that ends nearly every Ailey performance. But he could have been talking about the Ailey/Fordham BFA, too. The program certainly means something to Courtney Celeste Spears, FCLC ’16, one of seven Ailey/Fordham graduates now dancing with the company. She would take the stage later that evening, but first, she addressed a room of Fordham alumni and friends in the lobby—an intimate moment before the lights went down.
“It was such a whirlwind of four years,” Spears said of her college experience. “I think so much of the foundation that I got there shaped me as a young woman, as a professional, as a dancer, as an artist in so many ways. It was such a well-rounded program.” But more than anything? “I always felt just very covered, and safe and advocated for.”
That was music to the ears of Andrew Clark, Ph.D., a Fordham professor of French and comparative literature who also co-directs the BFA program. Clark’s sister was a classical ballet dancer, on her way to a professional career, when she tore the ligaments in her hip. “That totally changed her life. She couldn’t dance ever again. … She had to pick another path,” he said.
Today, the Ailey/Fordham program offers students a best-of-both-worlds approach: a top dance education and a top classroom education in New York City. “Having other curiosities, having other skills and interests and passions [beyond dance is]really important,” Clark said. But don’t think for a second that he doesn’t care about dance. His voice rose talking about the first number of the night: Spears would be dancing with Christopher R. Wilson, FCLC ’17, whom Clark advised when Wilson was an undergrad. He is “such a beautiful dancer, and they dance together all the time and they’re amazing,” Clark said.
Minutes later, the theater filled up. The show began. The program was rhythmic, painful, energetic, beautiful. A New York institution, performing for a hometown crowd. It was worth losing sleep for.
—Jeff Coltin, FCRH ’15, is the City Hall bureau chief at City & State New York and a contributor to this magazine.
The Ailey performance was one of many cultural events hosted throughout the year by Fordham’s Office of Alumni Relations. Learn more at fordham.edu/events.