Dance is more than a series of movements that follow a beat.
In the hands of a great choreographer like Alvin Ailey, dance is a powerful language in which the human body expresses a range of emotions and ideas.
Ailey’s unique style of dance will be on display this weekend at Salem State and Endicott College, where Sylvia Waters of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will lead several programs.
Workshops, which are limited to students from the two schools, will share Ailey’s techniques and introduce some of his famous dances.
But in two lectures on three successive days that are open to the public, Waters will put Ailey’s career in perspective.
“The first one basically is Mr. Ailey’s background, from his early beginnings, and the genesis of a lifelong vision,” Waters said. “The second one is a chronicle of his work, his process, how the company runs.”
“All of this is from my perspective, having been with the company for as long as I have,” she said. “You get some of the backstory of the history.”
Waters’ lectures will include archival footage of interviews with Ailey, who died in 1989, and taped performances of his dances.
She will also discuss Ailey’s collaborations with great jazz musicians, from Duke Ellington and Max Roach to Charlie Mingus.
Waters joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1968. She toured with the company until 1974, when Ailey chose her to lead Alvin Ailey II, a group of dancers who have attended the Alvin Ailey School and who participate in educational programs before going on to professional careers.
A master teacher and head of the Horton department at Ailey for more than 30 years will teach students Horton Technique, a vocabulary of dance movements invented by Ailey’s mentor, Lester Horton.
“Horton is a dance discipline, and that’s where he started,” Waters said. “From that experience, Alvin culled his whole ideology about dance.”
Ailey’s use of Horton Technique was key to the development of modern dance as a whole, said Meghan McLyman, dance program coordinator at Salem State.
“He created his own style that eventually became this American jazz standard,” she said. “And that’s what is still taught through this Horton Technique.”
Students will practice the technique as they learn steps to several of Ailey’s dances, including “Blues Suite,” which he choreographed to the music of Duke Ellington.
“We read about them in our dance history courses,” McLyman said, “but it’s something else to do the dances, to put it on your body. Rather than just reading and watching a video, it’s a way of learning history physically.”
Mastering the discipline of dance allowed Ailey to address his own history, which included enduring racism in Texas, where he was born in 1931.
“‘Blues Suite’ really was almost documentary about life in Rogers, Texas, in a theatrical, abstract way,” Waters said. “He was informed by those early experiences.”
But in more than 70 major works that he created for his company, Ailey was by no means limited to being personal.
“He gave audiences a different way of looking at dance,” Waters said. “His dances were most often canvases of life, of people and of feeling and emotions. He wasn’t afraid to express that in his works.”
While those feelings included political passions, Ailey was never merely polemical in his dances.
“I would say he was a cultural warrior, because he did speak to topics that were happening to our country,” Waters said, “but it was all with the language of dance and theater.”
Waters’ visit is the first of several dance events at Salem State this year, which will include April performances by the Caitlin Corbett Dance Company and the Salem State Dance Ensemble.
The school’s dance department is growing, McLyman said, and will soon enjoy new studio and performance spaces, which are under construction and will open in the fall.
Having Waters and Alvin Ailey II on campus is an important addition to the students’ curriculum, with lessons that resonate beyond the dance floor, McLyman said.
“For Ailey working as an African-American during his time, and taking African-American subject matter and putting it onstage, was very revolutionary,” she said. “He was pushing the boundaries of what an American choreographer could do, and who that person could be.”
“This American jazz style is unique, it could have only happened in America with all these different cultures coming together,” McLyman said.
If you go What: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, The Ailey Legacy College Residency, lecture by Sylvia Waters, former principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and founding artistic director of Ailey II. When: Saturday, Feb. 2, 1 to 2:30 p.m., Rose Performance Hall, Endicott College Center for the Arts, 376 Hale St., Beverly; Sunday, Feb. 3, 1 to 2:30 p.m., and Monday, Feb. 4, 11 a.m. to 12:20 p.m., at O'Keefe Center Dance Studio, Salem State University, 352 Lafayette St., Salem. More information: Free. Visit www.salemstate.edu/arts or call 978-542-7890.