On July 17, Denise Jefferson, director of The Ailey School, died of ovarian cancer. Affectionately known as Ms. J, her warmth and megawatt smile belied the fact that she was the mastermind behind the educational juggernaut for 26 years.
Denise Jefferson was born in Chicago, Illinois, where she began her ballet studies with Edna L. McRae. She attended Wheaton College in Norton, MA, graduating with a B.A. in French; she then earned her M.A. in French from New York University. She was awarded a scholarship to the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance and began her professional career with the Pearl Lang Dance Company one year later.
In 1974, Ms. Jefferson joined the faculty of The Ailey School © and was appointed its Director in 1984. For the National Association of Schools of Dance, she served as President, Vice-President, Secretary, a member of the Board of Directors, and Chairperson of the Commission on Accreditation. She was also a panelist for the Dance Program and a former Appeals Panel member of the New York State Council on the Arts. Ms. Jefferson was the Vice-Chairperson of the International Association for Blacks in Dance and a former President of the Emergency Fund for Student Dancers. She was an adjudicator and a master teacher for the ARTS program sponsored by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. She was on the Boards of Directors for the Monte/Brown Dance Company and Career Transitions for Dancers, as well as on the Board of Trustees of Wheaton College. Ms. Jefferson was also a member of the Advisory Boards of the Professional Children’s School and the University of Oklahoma’s Dance Department.
Ms. Jefferson served as an evaluator of professional dance academies and college and university dance departments in the U.S. and abroad and an adjudicator of international dance competitions. She has taught at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Benedict College, University of Illinois (Chicago), Sarah Lawrence College, London Contemporary Dance School, National Dance Theatre of Bermuda, Rudra Béjart and the International Summer Academy in Cologne, Germany. She was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Wheaton College in 2001.