Some children are curious and some are not. Before there was television and video games played on tablets and cellphones, playing outside was the norm. Others were entertained “listening to grown folks talk.”
In the 1980s, while his counterparts played outside, Robert Battle, now the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was inside the house. Once a bow-legged toddler, he wore iron braces on both legs. As his legs strengthened and the braces were removed, he chose to remain inside watching his mother and her friends act out scripts and recite monologues on the front porch in Miami’s Liberty City.
Robert Battle calls Dessie Horne Williams, “Mother,” although she is his second cousin. In Nadege Green’s WLRN radio interview “A Conversation With Alvin Ailey Director Robert Battle and His Mom,” Battle volunteered that Williams raised him and helped shaped his love for the arts. His biggest cheerleader and inspiration, he rarely lets an interview go by without mentioning her impact on him.
Originally a Miami-Dade County Schools English and drama teacher, Williams and several friends regularly met on her front porch. They rehearsed literature produced by black writers, focusing on poetry, prose and music from the black diaspora.
The porch was the ideal setting. The closed-in screen and glass windows kept out flying and crawling insects. The assorted mismatched chairs were comfortable and framed the porch. Indeed, that porch became the stage that opened up the performing arts world to young Robert.
More than just friends, he was watching the rehearsals of a group of professional actors sitting in a far corner. Seeing them practicing regularly Battle came to appreciate the nuances of the spoken word. “Sometimes we interspersed our rehearsals with wisecracks and fits of laughter,” recalls Williams.
The group of friends, organized in 1967 by Rychard Cook, included Dessie Williams, George Ross and Bobby Kendrick. They formalized their friendship after giving a well-received presentation of dramatic readings from the works of the black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar to a white audience in South Dade. Graduates of Florida A&M University and Bethune Cookman University, the group named themselves the Afro-Americans.
Their founder, Rychard Samuel Cook II, a native of Fernandina Beach in north Florida, played piano, wrote songs and starred in school plays. He and Williams, hometown schoolmates through junior and senior high school, spent time entertaining each other with original short stories. Honor students, they became well known locally for their performances in Fernandina’s colored churches. In Miami-Dade County, Cook became a public school and university librarian.
The third member of the group, George Ross, a native Miamian and member of Ebenezer Methodist Church, sang on school and church programs. He was a co-worker of Dessie Williams at Mays Junior /Senior High School.
Bobby Kendrick, a native Miamian, was recognized during childhood as a talented singer and pianist. He idolized popular singer Nat “King” Cole, a frequent entertainer on Miami Beach. It was customary for black entertainers, booked to perform in the area, to visit student assemblies at Booker T. Washington Junior/Senior High School. On at least one occasion Cole shared techniques for playing the piano with Kendrick. Later, during his early 20s, Kendrick played in the White House. Well-known as a local nightclub entertainer, he was the fourth member of the Afro-Americans.
Active countywide, the group was well received and looked forward to expanding. However, according to Williams, “our greatest disappointment was that because of family and job obligations, we were never able to develop the Afro-American’s potential to its fullest.’’
What they missed, Robert Battle attained far beyond expectations. He became interested in dance after seeing a local school performance. He attended Orchard Villa Elementary, Allapattah Middle, and graduated from Miami Northwestern Senior High School. Later, he was selected to attend Miami’s New World of the Arts and received a scholarship to New York’s Julliard School of the Performing Arts.
When he was growing up, it was unusual for boys to study dance and those who did were often bullied by classmates. On the porch where the family relaxed and shared the day’s events, he often discussed being bullied with his mother. She encouraged his interest in dance saying, “Use to the fullest every God-given talent with which you have been blessed.” Using that advice, the next time Battle was approached, he informed the perpetrator, “I am going to become an artist, and when I return [to Liberty City] you will still be standing on the corner.”
Robert Battle worked very hard and made his prediction a reality. After extensive training, in 2011 he was personally selected by the retiring Judith Jamison to become only the third person to head the company since it was founded in 1958. Since then, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has performed for an estimated 26 million people at theaters in 48 states and 71 countries on six continents.
Reminiscing, his mother realizes that while they were busy rehearsing, the Afro-Americans hardly took notice of Robert quietly sitting at the end of the porch.
“Little Robert was watching and listening all the time. Who knew?”
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.