(CNN)When Troy Powell first showed an interest in Ryan Houston's dancing, the 21-year-old student thought the attention could be his big break.
Houston was studying at the New York City school of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the most prominent dance companies in the US and an iconic institution in the world of Black performing arts. Powell, a high-profile dancer, choreographer and teacher nearly two decades his senior, had helped make and break dance careers as a leader in the group's junior touring company.
But Houston said their professional relationship quickly turned uncomfortable as Powell texted him increasingly flirty and sexual messages. One night in 2010, Powell invited Houston to a nightclub, where he pushed him against a wall, grabbed his groin and butt and tried to kiss him, Houston said. Once he reported Powell's advances to the school's co-directors, Houston said, they told him making a "big deal" about it would hurt his chances to get a position in the company.
Anthony DeCarlis, another former student, said he considered Powell "a father figure" when Powell invited him to stay the night at his home in 2003 -- until he felt his teacher's penis rubbing against his backside as he lay on a bed.
Powell has hurt people "who have entrusted The Ailey School with their dreams and their future," DeCarlis said in an interview with CNN this month. "I just don't want it to be a secret anymore."
The Ailey organization on Monday announced that Powell "was no longer employed" there, saying an investigation sparked by social media chatter concluded Powell had "engaged in inappropriate communications with adults enrolled in the School." But CNN found that Powell's behavior went beyond just communications -- and that the school's leadership was presented with multiple allegations of misconduct years ago.
Allegations span almost a decade
Houston and DeCarlis are two of four former Ailey School students who alleged in on-the-record interviews with CNN that Powell abused his position of power, touching them inappropriately or making sexual overtures that include inviting one student to a sex party and sending another an unsolicited photo of his genitals. Three of the students said that after they rebuffed Powell's advances, they were cut from performances or rejected during auditions, which they believed may have been a form of retaliation by Powell.
Friends or mentors of three of the former dancers told CNN that the students had shared their accounts about Powell's behavior at the time. The allegations span almost a decade from 2003 to 2011 -- before the #MeToo movement shone a spotlight on similar behavior by a host of prominent men.
Leaders at the Ailey organization were aware of at least some of Powell's alleged conduct many years before they started the investigation, according to several former students who said they personally reported the incidents to the school's co-directors, Tracy Inman and Melanie Person.
Powell, 51, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Ailey organization declined to make Inman and Person available for an interview, and the co-directors did not respond to interview requests.
The Ailey spokesperson said that "at no time were the allegations of physical misconduct reported" to Inman and Person.
"Ailey is instituting a thorough review of its policies and procedures, which provide multiple avenues for reporting, and will be undertaking additional training of all employees and students," the spokesperson, Christopher Zunner, said in an email. "We affirm our commitment to providing a safe and supportive environment for all."
Some former Ailey students and dancers told CNN they saw the allegations against Powell as a symptom of a larger problem in a profession where artistic directors can get away with inappropriate behavior because they wield tremendous power over dancers' careers.
Tarnished legacy at a legendary dance company
The Ailey company was launched in 1958, when it was difficult for many Black dancers to perform with mainstream dance groups. Its founder, choreographer and modern dance pioneer Alvin Ailey, used his experiences growing up in deeply segregated rural Texas to create breathtaking dances that incorporate Black spirituality.
In his most famous work, Revelations -- which was performed at the inaugurations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and is still performed around the world by dancers from the company -- Ailey orchestrated the history of Black America in a 36-minute dance set to gospel songs. While the group was originally all-Black, Ailey decided to make it multiracial; most of its current students and members are people of color.
Before his death in 1989, Ailey grew the organization from a small ensemble to a dance empire. The group pulled in $48 million in revenue between July 2017 and June 2018, the most recent year for which its financial information is available.
Powell, a native New Yorker, had started his training as a scholarship student at the Ailey School at age nine, according to his online biography on the company's website, which was taken down this week. He performed around the world and taught at the school before taking over in 2012 as the artistic director of the group's junior touring company, Ailey II, which is seen as a stepping-stone to the most prestigious dancing roles.
A larger-than-life figure in the halls of the school's glassy building near New York City's Columbus Circle, Powell would often poke his head into classes to check on potential recruits, and dance students would give their best performances when he did, they said.
But behind the scenes, rumors about Powell's behavior spread among the close-knit group of Ailey alumni who've interacted with him.
Last month, those rumors erupted on social media: A TikTok video of two dancers with the caption "When you wanna be in Ailey 2 ... But guys gotta sleep with Troy Powell" circulated widely among the school's alumni in recent weeks. It's unclear who created the video. But several former students, including Houston and DeCarlis, posted their own sometimes tearful social media videos of themselves detailing the harassment they faced from Powell.
Following that, an attorney working with Ailey's general counsel reached out to several of the dancers who had commented on the social media posts. Three of the dancers told CNN they had been interviewed by that attorney. Ailey put Powell on leave in June as it conducted that investigation, according to the organization.
Powell's downfall represents the latest sexual harassment scandal to hit a leading US dance institution in recent years. Peter Martins, the artistic director at New York City Ballet, retired in 2018 amid allegations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse, which he denied, and Marcelo Gomes, a star dancer at the American Ballet Theater, resigned in 2017 after being accused of sexual misconduct. Gomes, who has danced with other groups since, has declined to comment about the allegation against him.
There's some evidence that Powell was aware that his behavior with students was inappropriate, even years before the school launched its investigation.
A fifth former Ailey student, who asked not to be named to avoid damaging his contacts in the dance industry, shared with CNN screenshots of Facebook messages that he said Powell sent him in early 2013, before he arrived at a summer intensive program at Ailey. He said less than an hour after a mentor posted a photo of him on Facebook announcing his graduation from another dance school, Powell messaged him out of the blue: "How are you babyboi?"
In a series of messages, Powell told the then-20-year-old dancer he could supplement his scholarship to help him pay for The Ailey School, and that the two could party together once the dancer arrived in New York. But Powell conditioned their friendship on a vow of secrecy.
"I want to help but you have to promise me you will not tell a soul... not even your mother," Powell wrote. "Feels like I've been through this before and got into drama, not trying to go through it again."
From flirty messages to an alleged nightclub assault
The accounts the students shared with CNN followed a similar pattern: Powell started by complimenting their dancing, and then sent them sexual messages that were increasingly inappropriate -- and in a couple cases escalated to physical behavior.
His actions came as a betrayal for students who had dreamed of joining Ailey for most of their lives. Ryan Houston said he fell in love with dance as a middle schooler in Los Angeles after attending an Ailey performance, and said dancing with the company was "what I saw for myself since I was 11 years old."
Houston was thrilled when he arrived at The Ailey School at age 21, he said, first through the summer intensive program and then full-time in the fall.
He said he quickly met Powell, who cast him in a dance. "He would give me a lot of, like, attention and looks and compliments," Houston said. But Powell soon started texting him increasingly flirty messages, he said.
Houston said he felt uncomfortable with the texts, and had heard rumors about Powell, but he would laugh or brush off Powell's comments "mostly because I didn't want to upset him -- because he was the one who picked who should be in the second company."
As the decisions about admission into Ailey II approached, Houston said Powell invited him to get dinner. He decided to go, he said, to "show him I'm fun, personable... like this would be a great person to take on tour." But the restaurant they went to was "romantic" and dark, Houston said. Over dinner, Powell asked him "who I've been with, what do I like sexually," and "kept curbing the conversation to anything sexual," Houston said.
Then Powell asked him to come to a nightclub, and Houston reluctantly agreed, he said. Powell bought him a drink, brought him to a corner, and then began groping his groin and butt, Houston said. Powell was "trying to feel on me, trying to kiss me," he said.
Houston, shocked, broke away and left. In the cab home, he said he got a text message from Powell telling him he was "childish." The next day, Houston said, Powell stopped speaking to him, ignoring him completely. "It was almost like a switch" went off, he said.
Later that year, when the new members of Ailey II were announced, Houston wasn't on the list. He said he was "devastated," and that his colleagues and other teachers were surprised he didn't make the cut.
The following summer, Houston said, another leader at the company brought him back as an apprentice on Ailey II. But after he was rejected again for membership in the company, he said he went to the school's co-directors, Inman and Person, and told them about what happened with Powell. He said he didn't remember if he specifically told them about Powell groping him, but that he told them Powell was making inappropriate advances toward him.
Their response, he said, was that they couldn't do anything without proof. They told him that "if I were to make a big deal about this and nothing happens, then I would be looked at as a problem and I would kind of mess my chances up to ever getting in the first company," he said. "I was told that since I don't really have any text message proof of that, I should just let it go and just work hard and come back next year and audition."
Zunner, the Ailey spokesperson, said Inman and Person had never received reports about physical behavior by Powell. He didn't respond to further questions about Houston's allegations.
Houston said he decided to let it go. He left the school, stopped dancing, and struggled with depression as "my love for dance dwindled," he said.
Houston said he no longer had the text messages he received from Powell because he got a new phone. But a former Ailey School teacher told CNN that Houston had showed him the text messages from Powell at the time.
"I don't remember the words, but it struck me as being intimidating and inappropriate," said the instructor, who asked that his name be withheld because he still has a relationship with the Ailey organization. "It felt like someone asking you out on a date... I do remember it made [Houston] feel really uncomfortable. He didn't know how to deal with it." The instructor said he encouraged Houston to report the episode to Ailey leadership but he didn't do so himself because he felt Houston was strong enough to handle it on his own.
Houston, who now lives in Los Angeles and manages an event planning company, said he decided to speak out about Powell's actions after seeing the TikTok video online, and because his eight-year-old son has started to show an interest in dance.
"It's bittersweet," he said -- he'd love to see his son following in his footsteps, but also worries about him having to face the same kind of harassment. "Seeing him want to dance, you know, it makes me nervous," he said.
A teen dancer's night at Powell's home
When Anthony DeCarlis missed his train home to New Jersey late one night in 2003, the 19-year-old dance student barely thought twice about accepting Powell's offer to sleep over at his home, he said.
DeCarlis, who grew up in Rochester, New York, still remembers the first video he saw of the Ailey company performing a piece called Hymn. "I was like, 'Oh, my God. They are so fierce," DeCarlis said. "It was just beautiful what you can do with your body and the way that you can express yourself through music. I've never seen anything like that."
Making it even more powerful, he said, was that "it was a Black dance company -- it was people that looked just like me."
DeCarlis made it to Ailey as part of a summer intensive program in 2003 and found it flattering when Powell started paying attention to his dancing, he said. "He's telling me that I'm such a good dancer," DeCarlis said. "And it's kinda like, 'Oh, well, maybe I'm good.'"
Powell would often go out to bars with DeCarlis and other students, and Powell always seemed to know someone who could get DeCarlis inside even though he didn't have a fake ID, DeCarlis said. "I'm like this little five-foot-three kid bouncing off the walls," he said. "And then he's giving me alcohol."
After one night on the town with Powell, DeCarlis, who was living in New Jersey at the time, missed the last train, he said. Powell invited him to stay the night at his place in Brooklyn. DeCarlis said he didn't worry about it because "this is someone that I trust."
But when they arrived at Powell's home, DeCarlis quickly realized there was only a single bed. When he laid down, he said Powell tried to "cuddle up on me," and he felt Powell's erect penis "trying to knock, knock, knock, knock on my back door."
"I was so surprised," DeCarlis said. He said he immediately told Powell to get off him, and his teacher stopped. The next morning, as a shell-shocked DeCarlis left for his class, he said Powell gave him a gift: A Louis Vuitton duffel bag Powell told him he bought during an Ailey trip in Europe, to replace a knockoff DeCarlis had bought and frequently carried.
After the incident, DeCarlis said Powell mostly stopped talking to him, other than occasional greetings in the hall. He said he was cut from a piece Powell had directed that he had been cast in. "My name was written on the cast list," he said, "and it was scratched off."
Another instructor told him he was cut because his ballet level wasn't advanced enough, DeCarlis said. He said he didn't know whether the rejection had to do with him saying no to Powell. "I was devastated," he said.
He said he told a friend he danced with as a teenager about the episode with Powell. The friend, who asked not to be named to avoid hurting her dance career, told CNN she remembered DeCarlis telling her about Powell rubbing his penis against him, and about the Louis Vuitton bag, around the time it happened.
DeCarlis, now 36, continued to dance with other companies and the Metropolitan Opera House, and currently teaches ballroom dance. He said he was glad that Powell no longer works at Ailey. But he wants the school to make broader reforms and issue a public apology to former students harassed by the director.
"I literally have buried this somewhere in my subconscious," DeCarlis said. "And this is how it's coming back out."