The posthumous legacy of legendary choreographer and activist Alvin Ailey still resonates through the arts in Kansas City.
Founded in 1984 and located in the historic Jazz district on the 18the and Vine, friends of Alvin Ailey from Kansas City were instrumental in making Ailey’s delayed dreams come true after her sudden death in AIDS-related illness in 1989.
Perhaps the most influential program in KCFAA’s outreach to urban youth in the subway is Camp Ailey, which was founded here in the summer of 1989 on the site of its last public appearance.
In partnership with the KCMO and KCK public school districts, Ailey Camp is a free five-week intensive dance and life skills program for underprivileged middle school students.
It touched the lives of 1.2 million people in all communities, while expanding to nine other major cities such as Miami, Baltimore and Seattle.
Without a doubt, Camp Ailey in Kansas City is the leader of the pack, which wouldn’t be possible without the contributions of UMKC students and alumni.
Five of the 12 camp staff are UMKC alumni who are dedicated to teaching and inspiring the next generation through dance and leadership skills.
The Kansas City Camp Chief and Matriarch is Camp Social Worker and Counselor Yvette Norris. She graduated from UMKC in 1995 and has been with the program for 25 years.
“Being able to give back to these kids and see their transformation over the years is one of my greatest accomplishments in life,” Norris said. “It wouldn’t be possible without the education I received at UMKC.”
Since most of these children come from the urban core, they are often exposed to socio-economic childhood traumas, such as food insecurity and domestic violence. Teaching children healthy coping skills like conflict resolution is essential in their development into adulthood.
The staff also includes Miyesha McGriff, an elegant and skillful professional dancer and ballet instructor, who was trained at the Ailey School and Kansas City Ballet.
Subway Child Graduated from the UMKC Conservatory Dance Program in 2011, she is now a leading artist for the Collage Dance Collective of Memphis, TN, and a Camp Ailey instructor for six years.
McGriff’s Alma Mater, the UMKC Conservatory, is ranked 24e best of its kind in the world, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Likewise, Collage Dance Collective has received rave reviews and awards for its contributions to contemporary American dance and is part of an impressive repertoire of black-led dance companies in the United States.
“One word to sum up the experience of Ailey Camp for children and as an instructor is growth,” said McGriff. “Watching the progress of these kids as they adjust to me as I learn how to best teach them is remarkable. “
Another alumnus whose contributions are critical to Ailey Camp’s success is jazz and ballet instructor Kennedy Banks. In the spring of 2021, she obtained a diploma in dance and choreography from the UMKC Conservatory.
The 22-year-old Chicago native started studying dance in college and has been working for the camp since her freshman year at UMKC. She credits the program and its instructors with the skills and work ethic she hopes to instill in her students each year.
“The conservatory prepared me a lot for this experience,” Kennedy said. “They showed me how to set an example, attract attention, and extract the strict focus needed to be a professional dancer and instructor.”
Finally, there’s talented and passionate UMKC junior Marcus Johnson, a native of Windy City and a modern dance instructor at the camp.
“Everything I learn in college, I literally teach my students,” Johnson said. “The warm-up I learned from Gary Abbott is exactly the routine I teach my students. I go to class every day and I absorb all the knowledge that the program teaches me is immediately returned to these students.
Giving back to Kansas City’s historically marginalized and disadvantaged communities is at the heart of UMKC’s mission. While Ailey’s relationship with the university prior to her death 31 years ago is unknown, it’s clear that UMKC alumni are doing justice to her impact in the Kansas City community.