Remembering Dudley Williams 1938-2015


Dudley Williams and I during my student days

Dance legend and inspiring teacher Dudley Williams has passed at age 77. Although I am deeply saddened by this news, I can’t help but smile at my memories of him  as he was one of the most charismatic teachers I studied under, and one of my favorites.

I will never forget his deafening cries, “SUFFER!!! SUFFFFEEEERRR” as we pleaded into the floor in graham class. Not because he wanted us to physically suffer, but because he wanted to us to feel the emotions that made Martha Graham create her contorted shapes of misery. That’s what mattered most for Dudley, feeling what we needed to feel to be great performers on stage. When we performed an exercise poorly in class he would stare out of the window for a moment and declare, “I need a cigarette.” He would call me ‘Birdy’ in class. “You are like a little bird just beginning to peep out of its shell, cheep cheep cheep!”

My sophomore year at Ailey  I was placed in a split Graham Level, once a week I took level 3, and twice a week I took level 2. However, for the sophomore Jury exam, I was scheduled to test with all of the level 3 students since there were not enough level 2’s to have our own exam, and the other sophomores were taking level 1 Graham. The exam that year was given by Virginie Mecene who decided to put standing falls into the combination. A what fall?? I had not learned that yet in my level 2 class! Mortified I watched the six other more advanced students gracefully contract,spiral, and slide into the floor without a sound. When it was my turn I  stood in front of the Jury and blindly threw my body towards the ground, a blushing spandex bag of potatoes that thudded on the floor in fetal position.

The next day, convinced that I had flunked out of the Ailey School,  I raised my hand in Dudley’s class and asked if he could teach us standing falls. At this time Dudley was nearly 70 years-old and was no longer diving into the floor to demonstrate. Instead he would teach class perched on the edge of a chair, showing us the arms and head and painstakingly dictating the exact positioning of the legs, knees, and big toe for every bit of Graham technique. I knew that something as complicated as this would take awhile, and so did the rest of the class who rolled their eyes at me as Dudley hoisted his tooth-pick thin body out of his seat and balanced his teetering frame with his finger tips on the mirror. Clearing his throat he spent the next hour and fifteen minutes teaching us all how to fall to the ground in 10 counts. He very likely needed a cigarette at the end of that class.

Dudley’s class was at times exhaustively meticulous as the day he taught us standing falls. Other times, like when he would teach us excerpts of Reflections in D, his class was where one could be free to perform.   Some days he would tell us stories about his heyday performing for Martha and for Ailey as well as his more recent performances with Paradigm. This is what was most inspiring about Dudley. He was a true performer who danced from his heart and didn’t stop dancing, or performing even in his old age. As a teacher he taught all aspects it takes to be a good dancer: emotion and heart on stage, delibrate technical prowess, and respect for the history and lifestyle of our craft. Although he has finally put on his long white robe, I know Dudley is up there, still dancing up a storm, still performing and still inspiring his students down below.

ready2dudleywilliamsRead more about Dudley and listen to a conversation with him here: