Dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey took advantage of history and emotion to create his celebratory, groundbreaking work. After years of training under greats like Martha Graham, and Lester Horton, he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, giving a platform to tell the stories of blacks in Africa and America. Revelations, a celebration of religious spirit, premiered in 1980, and was one of his most well respected works that his company still performs three decades later. When Ailey died of complications from AIDS in 1989, the New York Times wrote, "you didn't need to have known [him] personally to have been touched by his humanity, enthusiasm, and exuberance and his courageous stand for multi-racial brotherhood."
Jazz and blues singer Bessie Smith got her start as a dancer in minstrel shows and cabarets. Eventually, Smith created an extravagant traveling show of her own, drawing massive crowds and pulling in unprecedented income for a black woman. Smith, known as the "Empress of the Blues," sold heaps of records, played shows across the country, and ended up influencing countless musicians who followed her. She was known as bisexual, and is rumored to have had an intimate relationship with another successful blues singer, Ma Rainey. At the end of the 1920s, with the crash of the stock market came a divorce, the end of her contract with Columbia Records, and a downward spiral filled with alcohol. Still, she persevered and continued to tour, and was engaged to a man when she suffered fatal injuries from a car accident at age 43.