50 Years Of Heart And Soul

Alvin Ailey was a pioneer 50 years ago when he formed a small troupe of African-American dancers here in New York. Since then, the company has performed for some 21 million people, bringing American modern dance and the African-American cultural experience to the whole world. And as CBS News correspondent Michele Miller reports, they're just getting warmed up.

After a half century, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre isn't kicking back, it's just kicking higher.

"It seems the designers used a lot more fabric when I first got here," said Alvin Ailey dancer Renee Robinson.

Robinson's dance card has been filled for 27 seasons at Ailey. Amos Machanic has been on board for 12. Both see Ailey as more than dance. It's more like a mission.

"Mr. Ailey, he always said dance came from the people," Machanic said. "It should always be delivered back to the people."

Alvin Ailey started his company in 1958. He gave African American dancers a spotlight, but resisted being labeled.

"I'm not a black choreographer," Ailey said in 1984. "I'm not a black anything. First of all I'm a human being. And I don't really like being put into a box."

"Mr. Ailey was reacting to the fact that we couldn't see our own images up there on the stage. He wanted to say something about our beauty, about our intelligence, about our craft and our experience," said Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Much of Ailey's continued strength is thanks to Jamison. Lead dancer in the 60's and 70's, she became artistic director in 1989 after Alvin Ailey's death.

"We have evolved and reinvented ourselves. But based on the premise that this man thought of a long time ago, that dance should be accessible," Jamison said.

Ailey is the most traveled dance troupe in the world, earning the congressional title "Cultural Ambassador to the World."

They've even gone a little Hollywood, appearing on TV's "Dancing with the Stars."

"They called us; what can I say?" Jamison said. "And they loved us and we still kept true to our Ailey vision."

What's been the most dramatic change in 50 years?

"Me!" Jamison said. "I'm the most dramatic change. Look, I don't have hair on my head. I had hair 50 years ago.

Jamison will step down in three years. But she says Ailey's legacy is secure.

Proof of its longevity, the signature ballet "Revelations" has closed most performance since 1960.

"Heart and soul, spirit, love, humor, dedication. All those corny words we like to use happen to work for us," Jamison said.

Words they've danced by for 50 years.