Alicia Graf Mack
The gift that keeps on giving is back at Ailey.
Mon Nov 21 2011
Photograph: Andrew Eccles
When Alicia Graf Mack left Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2008, it seemed that her dancing career was finished—among other things, she suffers from an autoimmune disorder classified as reactive arthritis, which, at the time, led to swelling and pain in her joints. (She had experienced it all before as a brilliant member of Dance Theatre of Harlem in the late '90s.) Mack joined her husband in St. Louis and, while pursuing her master's in nonprofit management, began teaching dance, first at the Center of Creative Arts and then at Webster University, where she served as a visiting assistant professor of dance. What happens when you start teaching? You start dancing again. Mack, 32 and one of the most glorious dancers to step onto any stage, is back, and we're all the better for it.
What is your autoimmune disorder all about?
It's in the family of spondyloarthropathy, but it's never shown up in my blood, so we have never been able to classify exactly what type of arthritis or autoimmune disorder I have. The symptoms are like reactive arthritis. I also have the disease in my eye.
[Shakes head] So 2008 was really hard because I had to take a lot of medication in my eye, which made everything really blurry. And it's given me cataracts, so everything is still a little blurry. It was a lot to handle. Since I left Dance Theatre of Harlem, I had managed it pretty successfully, but that year it blew out of control.
Do you know why?
It's one of these things that can go into remission with medication, and because it's an autoimmune disorder, anything can trigger it. It has nothing to do with the physicality of dancing. At the same time, I had a small tear in my knee, but it was the type of tear that I could have managed dancing with or I could have had a small surgery and would have continued to go on fine. But when I found out I had a tear, I just couldn't handle any more body issues. Although it was a very hard decision, and I had been doing really well here, I just felt that it was too hard to manage. It's a hard enough career, and then to be battling your body at the same time got to be too much. So with tears in my eyes, I had to tell Ms. [Judith] Jamison that I wasn't coming back. That was really heartbreaking. However, because I had done it before [Laughs].... This time, I know that my future is bright. No matter what I decide to do—as long as I keep pushing myself to learn and figure out what else I'm good at.
I get it. Because you've thought you were at the bottom before, but you were able to rise again?
Yeah. And I know what the bottom is and I'm not going back there again. [Laughs] So this time, I already had an idea of my other interests. I was dating the man who is now my husband. The thought of being closer to him was very exciting as well. He was living in St. Louis, so we had a long-distance relationship. I moved to St. Louis and enrolled at Washington University and I got a master's degree in nonprofit management. Although it wasn't an arts-administration focus, most of the projects focused on the arts to get a 360 look at the arts in general.
You must have learned a lot about the inner workings of a company.
I did. I really admire [Ailey's executive director] Sharon Luckman. I talked to her a few times while I was at school just to bounce ideas off of her. Look at what she's done with this institution! That was my source of inspiration for studying nonprofit management. Also, when I was at Columbia, I interned for three years with J.P. Morgan. I worked in marketing, specifically in corporate giving and philanthropy, and we worked a lot with dance companies there as well. It kind of came full circle.
It's interesting: You've gone to school twice now to investigate the places where you danced. At Columbia, you focused on the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Yeah! And it's been great because it allowed me to refocus my life while continuing to move forward. A lot of times, I've heard of dancers who have had an injury or who have tried to make a career transition, but it feels like they're standing still, and I definitely didn't have a choice once I got into school. I just had to keep moving. And at the same time, so that I could make money and stay in the studio a little bit, I started teaching.
At COCA [Center of Creative Arts]?
Yes. I had a connection through [Ailey dancer] Antonio Douthit, who's one of my best friends. One year, I went there to do a gala with him. I fell in love with teaching! I did not expect that at all. I had never wanted to be a teacher. I feel it's one of the hardest jobs in the world: You're in the studio just as much as the students are, and you're giving just as much energy as they are. I know how much my coach put into me. [Laughs] I was like, I don't know if I can do that, but once I got to know the students and saw how inspired they were and that they wanted the same things that I wanted when I was younger, I couldn't help but continue to teach there. And then my teaching grew—originally, I was only teaching three or four classes, and it escalated to 11 or 12 classes a week, and then I became a pre-professional guidance counselor for the high-school students who were wanting to go to college or make a career out of dance.
What happened next?
I started looking for work. Because there isn't a lot of professional dance in St. Louis, I was considering working at the Botanical Gardens or some nonprofit, but before I even had a chance to finish school, a position opened at Webster University for a visiting professor of dance. I was like, that opportunity is not going to come around any time soon, so I took it and I was a professor for a year. It was great to be part of an institution like that. It was challenging.
What is the dance department like?
It's fairly small. They offer a B.F.A., so you have to audition. Most of the students are from the Midwest; they offer a full range of ballet, modern, aerial and comp classes. They have a strong musical-theater program as well. I taught ballet, pointe, modern and Horton class. Now I have a whole new family of young people who motivate me and write me on Facebook, and say that they miss me and can't wait to see me dance. It keeps me excited about my career and in the back of my mind it also keeps me inspired even to take classes here and to really delve into the new work that we have and the techniques that I'm not accustomed to. I know that will enhance my teaching later.