The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alvin Ailey dancers boycott annual gala at the Kennedy Center

Guests dance at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 19th annual Kennedy Center opening night gala Feb. 6 to celebrate the opening of a week of performances at the Kennedy Center. (Erin Schaff for The Washington Post)

Ask anyone what the best thing about the annual Alvin Ailey gala at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is, and they will answer simply: the dancers. Duh.

Not only do they perform to mythic-level perfection on stage, but just over an hour later the dancers shimmy out of their costumes and chassé into the annual benefit upstairs, pumping the run-of-the-ballroom soiree with all their bright kinetic energy. The parade of performers, who burst into the room just before the $1,000-a-plate dinner is served, is the unanimous highlight of the night.

This year it did not happen.

There was no big introduction, no parade and no standing ovation at the gala Tuesday at the Kennedy Center. The dancers, who are renegotiating a three-year contract with Alvin Ailey American management, left the building in a choreographed huff, boycotting the benefit where their presence — schmoozing at individual tables during dinner and two-stepping on the dance floor afterward — is a huge draw for donors. The evening’s organizers learned of the boycott in the middle of Tuesday’s opening night performance.

“It’s their decision,” said BET Chief Executive Debra L. Lee, the gala’s longtime co-chair. She added the dancers’ absence had not infected the party’s mood. Earlier in the night, Lee and Bennett Rink, executive director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, were spotted conferring quietly on what to do about the evening’s twist. In the end, no announcement was made, but the absence was felt. One attendee even walked up to the Lee and Bennett to point out (complain?) the empty seats at her table should have been filed with Ailey dancers.

Robert Battle, Ailey’s artistic director, had no official comment on the dancers’ decision but instead waxed poetic about families and fighting.

“So many things are emotional, and I think we’re in a very emotional and tense time in the country, and so this is a natural part of a process,” Battle said Tuesday. “We will get through it, because there’s a reason that the Alvin Ailey dance company has withstood the test of time. We’re a big family, and sometimes we just need to talk, you know what I’m saying?”

Maybe this town might learn something from that?

“I think that’s the important thing. We all just need to talk,” Battle continued. “That’s where I am right now. Because what [the dancers] give on that stage is incredible. And what they give to people is incredible, and we have to respect that. We family. We can fight behind the scenes and figure things out, but what those dancers give on the stage is what I hired them to do.”

Even without the dancers there, the crowd at the Kennedy Center somehow managed to do what it was supposed to: party. As celebrity DJ D-Nice (last seen in town at one of the Obamas’ final hurrahs in the White House) spun old-school hits from the booth, the black-tie mob boogied and wobbled, just without the professionals there to sprinkle their fairy dust on the evening.

Folks whispered about it, shaking their heads in between tapping their toes. None said they would not be back next year.