COLUMBIA — Something clicked in Alex Clayton's head as he watched an Alvin Ailey performance the summer before his senior year of high school.
He had always been interested in dance, but wasn’t aware of anything beyond classical ballet. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was founded in 1958 and added gospel, blues and jazz to the traditional dance repertoire.
What: Undergraduate commencement ceremony
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, May 4
Where: Missouri Theatre, 203 S. Ninth St.
The ceremony is open to the public. No tickets are needed.
“The performance really just broke the stereotypes living in my head,” he said. “For the first time ever, I saw myself up there on the stage.”
Four years later, Clayton is about to graduate from Stephens College with a bachelor's degree in fine arts. He will be the last man to graduate from Stephens College with such a degree in dance.
"I guess you could say I'm kind of leaving a legacy," he said.
Men and modern dance
According to Dance Magazine, men who train seriously in dance "are treated like precious commodities. They build confidence more easily and, as adults, they get the jobs more quickly."
At 5 feet 4 inches, Clayton is well below the average height of a classical male ballet dancer, which steered him in the direction of contemporary dance.
He says the freedom of modern dance allows him to be more expressive and attached to his movements.
“I love modern because there is so much more feeling,” he said. “There is so much more of an emotional connection. You feel really grounded to the piece.”
The Gender Project studied the differences between men and women in dance and found that modern dance offers men a way to experiment with their athleticism and step away from gender bias in their dance roles.
Choreographer Nicholas Leichter told The New York Times in 2004 that modern dance doesn't necessarily make it "safer" for men to explore dance.
''But I do think that colleges and universities make it safer for men to 'experiment.' And I think that modern dance can fall into that safer category," he said.
Giving credit to Mom
Clayton is actually majoring in visual arts, and he said the addition of dance has made college hectic.
“It was a very busy year,” he said about the last two semesters. “I had four-hour art classes during the day, musical theater for my school after that, ballet classes until 7:30 and then typically another rehearsal.”
He would then go home where he would work on art and other homework.
“You could say I was double majoring, in a sense,” he said. "It was school, sleep and repeat. I didn’t have much of a social life.”
If it weren’t for his mother’s support, Clayton said he probably would not be dancing at all.
Instead of questioning his decision to dedicate his life to dance, he said his mother focused her attention on how to help him succeed.
“First it was art school,” Clayton said. “Then I told her dance school, and she was like, ‘OK! Dance school! Let’s go!’”
Lovingly referred to as the “Energizer Bunny” by his mom, Denise, his ability to focus proved to her that he would be able to take on the challenge.
“He has always been willing to struggle,” his mother said. “I hope this foundation allows him to pursue his dreams.”
When Clayton wasn’t sure how to move toward his dream, his mom was there to help.
“She was the one who bought the tickets to see Alvin Ailey,” he said. “She took me to all of my auditions.”
A man in a woman’s world
To be the only remaining male dancer at a historically all-women’s college has its advantages and disadvantages, Clayton said.
“I get a lot of training in partnering, and I’m automatically cast in almost every piece,” he said. “Though I’m not always sure I’m cast because of my ability.”
Yet, a dancer needs to learn from the technique and talent of others to progress, and it has been difficult for him to gauge his ability without any role models in class.
“It just takes me a little longer to get into it,” he said.
Stephens College was strictly a women's college until the 1960s when the college decided to admit men into the theater and dance programs. The decision to offer fine arts degrees to men was revoked in 2010.
Men can still enroll in the college's Professional Conservatory Training Program, but Clayton said he is fearful about the future of the dance department.
“I just worry about the success of the dance program,” he said. “Partnering is important and girls will need to have that skill to be successful.”
At the end of the day, Clayton believes that he has grown at Stephens College, possibly more than he would have at a different school.
His advanced ballet class, for example, comprises just four students, allowing them to receive a lot of one-on-one attention from their instructors.
"It's very intimate," he said. "We strive to help one another grow and learn."
The next step
Clayton’s hard work will finally pay off after his graduation later this month.
He recently auditioned with his dream company, Alvin Ailey, and was accepted into the professional division of The Ailey School, which he will begin next October.
“I’m thrilled,” he said. “This is what I have been working for."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.