By Lee A. Daniels
Offhandedly, I can’t tell you the titles of most of the dances I saw Dudley Williams, the incomparable artist who danced with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company for more than 40 years, perform. And I’ve no knowledge of the lexicon of dance criticism; so I can’t explain in critical terms what this or that particular movement he performed means.
But I’ve long known why I’ve always been awed by the work of Williams, who died last week at 76. It was the commitment to discipline his work conveyed.
Of course, Williams was one of the great artists – in any field – of our time. The riveting expressiveness in his every movement on stage enabled us to explore the beauty of movement—and of its opposite: a stillness that nonetheless channeled piercing emotion. To me, his surpassing gifts were the product not only of an extraordinary artistic sensibility and training and contemplation. They were also the product of an elemental commitment to physical and mental rigor.
I admit I’ve long been attracted to discipline, in part because even as a child I felt I lacked it. No focus – that was me, mentally meandering this way and that until I became involved in two quite different activities in my early adolescence.
One was joining a church-based “freedom choir” in my Northern city that had direct links with civil rights activists in the South. That helped me to understand the tremendous, soul-fortifying discipline nonviolently confronting the evil of Jim Crow required. The second was my joining a summer track and field club coached by a strict disciplinarian. He had developed some of the nation’s fastest schoolboy sprinters and hurdlers of those years. The workouts – that were just short of grueling – he routinely put us through, and the sense of competence I felt in completing them produced a momentous change in me: I grew to love working hard.
In other words, the combined effect of those two activities led me to realize that a positive allegiance to working to the best of one’s ability is actually the determination to meet the challenges of the present and future.
That, in turn, led me to see that quality in the actions of people all around me: In the neighborhood activists, who were dedicating their lives to improving our community. In my sophomore –year high school Latin teacher, who helped me understand that a disciplined approach to the language was the key to understanding its beauty. In my parents, and those of many of my friends, whose clairvoyance in seeing the coming expansion of opportunity across the Color Line fueled their preparing their children to take advantage of it.
Words once spoken by the Olympic track champion Michael Johnson describe my point succinctly. Explaining the technique involved in one of his specialties, the 200-meter sprint, he said, “With each step, a thought.”
That attitude is a framework – not a straitjacket – for accomplishing one’s goals, or at least honestly pursuing them. It rests on not just talent but, most important, on steeling one’s emotions to endure the hard work the pursuit of perfection requires. It’s what I think Dudley Williams meant when he said in a 2005 interview in theNew Yorker magazine, “Dancing is about acting, about being a liar, basically, because often you don’t feel like dancing, but it’s your job. So you get out there and you do the movement, and it’s not happening. So you work harder, you work harder, you go deep inside what you’re about.”
He made the same point on another occasion with different words, according to the June 4 New York Timesobituary of him, in saying that a dancer needed a reason for every movement. “You can’t just put your hand out. You have to know what happens when you put your hand out and your body goes with it. And I dance to the music, no matter what it is … You must listen to the music and love it, and then you can do the dance differently every time.”
So, I agree wholeheartedly with the well-deserved praise of Dudley Williams, the artist. It’s just that I would also add two words: “and disciplinarian.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com.