The Alvin Ailey Gala, as Usual, Makes For a Provocative Night Out in DC

The Kennedy Center hosted a party-happy crowd.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

The term “the usual suspects” is typically used with derision when applied to Washington social events. Not so with the annual Alvin Ailey opening-night gala at the Kennedy Center. The usual suspects who show up for this lively night are routine only in that they are one party-happy crowd—dance-happy, too. The 700-plus guests arrive in their sparkly dresses and black tie, sit in the Opera House to watch the Ailey troupe perform, and then, inspired, ascend to the rooftop terrace, where just about everyone crowds onto the dance floor.

That’s how it’s been for 14 years and how it was again on Tuesday night.

The Ailey gala is a rare late night for Washington. Dinner is not served until about 10. But the dinner, good as it is, really isn’t the point. The point is seeing who’s there, what they’re wearing, who they’re with, and, of course, who’s getting on the dance floor. It’s been the same band for years, Free Spirit, and they perform an irresistible set of classic R&B plus Top 40 tunes. This year, guests danced till almost midnight.

The event is rare for another reason: It’s one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse, social events each year in Washington.

At dinner—a first course of beet salad, salmon for an entrĂ©e—my tablemates included our host, DeDe Lea, executive vice president of Viacom; her husband, Dr. Dallas Lea, a spinal cord specialist associated with Medstar; Ailey dancer Sarah Daley; and DC painter Jacquelyn A. Flowers.

Daley, 26, who is from Illinois, ate like a hungry dancer who hadn’t had a meal since breakfast, which she said is not unusual on performance days. She’s been with Alvin Ailey for two years and came to the troupe after deciding to not join the Kirov Ballet, where she had trained. “It was just too severe,” she said. Her time immersed in classical ballet showed her that she preferred modern dance, which is how she found her way to Ailey.

Flowers had her own interesting story. She did not start out as an artist. She came to Washington from Texas with an MBA, and worked for almost a decade as a corporate and private banker. She joined the administration of DC mayor Anthony Williams as his director of the office of local business development. On her website she boldly states that she left her career and redirected her energy toward painting after receiving a message from God that her true calling was as an artist. That was in 2001. “I dared to believe that what I heard was indeed what God wanted for my life,” the site reads. Flowers quit her job, enrolled in the Corcoran College of Art and Design, studied with noted DC artists Lou Stovall and Sam Gilliam, and now has her own studio near Union Station.

This would all be a remarkably provocative DC night out were it not part of the Alvin Ailey Gala. After all, it was only a year ago that I sat next to a well-dressed woman of a certain age who announced she hoped to open a DC medical marijuana dispensary. She had the whole business plan thought through, plus partners and a location, and assured me she had “tried all the products.” Alas, the last time we checked, she had not made the cut.

But this is why people return again and again to the Ailey gala. Great dancing on the stage, great dancing on the dance floor, and dinner partners who are never boring.

Guests at the gala included White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, gala co-chairs Debra Lee, Lyndon Boozer, Christopher Cowan, and Gina Adams, Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, Dave Grimaldi of the FCC, gala vice-chair Yelberton “Yebbie” Watkins, Riley TempleAndrew Wells, Michael and Sheryl Wilbon, Reginald Van Lee, Douglas Sonntag, Felix Sanchez, Ann Walker Marchant, Ronald and Beth Dozoretz, Sophie Delattre, Aisha Davis, Heather Podesta, Ray and Nina Benton, Howard Fineman and Amy Nathan, Shalom Baranes, Jeanne Rossomme Cohen, Kathryn Rand, Eugene Adams, Nicole Isaac, Ann Jordan, Sanford “Sandy” Weill, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Robert Battle, Art and Sela Collins, and Bill and Sonnie Dockser.

DeDe and Dallas Lea at the Alvin Ailey gala. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.
Susan Eisenhower, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Heather Podesta. Photograph by Kyle Samperton.
Sharon Malone, Gwen Ifill and Courtney Snowden. Photograph by Kyle Samperton.