In the Hot Seat with… Alicia Graf Mack

In the Hot Seat with… Alicia Graf Mack

For this week’s Hot Seat, the Out N About sat down with the director of the dance division of New York’s renowned performing arts school Juilliard. She has danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and she has danced as a guest performer with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, Beyoncé, John Legend, Andre 3000, and Alicia Keys. Alicia Graf Mack is no stranger to St. Maarten. She has come down three times to teach ballet classes to some of the island’s most talented youths through the Art Saves Lives programme.

Please tell us about yourself.

My name is Alicia Graf Mack, and I am originally from Columbia, Maryland. I started my dance career at 17 at the Dance Theater of Harlem. Growing up, I always aspired to be a ballerina – and lucky for me I got to fulfil that dream through them. I have also been a leading dancer of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Currently, I am the dean and director of the dance division at The Juilliard School in New York.

How did you get into dance?

You can say that I came out of the womb dancing. My parents did not have a dance background, but they recognized I liked to move. So, they enrolled me in creative movement dance classes at the age of two and ballet from age 4. By the time I turned nine, it was a very serious afterschool activity for me. I had daily ballet and pointe classes but also took modern dance, jazz and many other forms of dance. By the time I turned eleven, I started training with the thought of becoming a professional dancer.

Besides being a dancer, you are also a dance educator. Why did you decide to go in that direction?

When I was dancing, I never thought I would want to become a teacher because I saw how much my teachers poured into me and I did not think that that would be my passion. But, during one of my injuries, I started to teach to stay connected to the field and I fell in love with it. I had the opportunity to earn various degrees: I graduated with honours in history from Columbia University and hold a masters in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis. In 2009, I started my teaching career at Webster University as a dance professor. I worked there for a total of four years. I also taught as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Houston and Washington University, so I was associated with three different universities. In 2017, I was made aware that Juilliard was looking for a new dean and director and I started in this role a year later.

What do you enjoy most about dance education and working with the youth in particular?

I love working with young people, because I am able to work with the most aspirational hard-working dreamers in our community. That gives me energy and I feel connected to them because we share a passion for the same art form. I know that dance can be an incredible vehicle for transforming your life, so it is very meaningful to me to be a part of that.

How did you start working with the Art Saves Lives Foundation (ASL) on St. Maarten?

I met Nicole de Weever in the early 2000s. The dance world is small, and she was dancing with Forces of Nature. They rehearsed at the St. John The Divine Cathedral, which is basically next to the campus of Columbia University. I was in school at Columbia at the time and we connected as friends and dance colleagues. When Nicole was thinking about creating ASL, she wanted to provide a very diverse study programme. So, she invited me to come to St. Maarten to teach ballet.

I came down for the first time for the launch of ASL in 2013. In 2014, I came to the island to teach again, this time bringing my baby Jordan. He was no older than three months at the time, but all the teachers helped babysit or he would just watch the students dance from his spot on the floor. And I came back this year for the last Art Saves Lives Summer Intensive.

What has your experience been on St. Maarten?

First of all, the island is just beautiful, so it is such a gift to travel there. But the students are also so bright and talented, and they are so receptive to new information. Administratively, the system has improved so much since ASL launched and they have really established an important presence on the island. Some students who I knew from years ago were there now as young adults and it was incredible to see both their physical and artistic development. It is also wonderful to see the island recognizing Nicole’s contribution to the cultural fabric of the community.

Can you tell us more about you class for ASL? What were you trying to teach the kids here?

I teach ballet – and I love teaching ballet because it is a movement language that is taught all over the world. Even if it’s a technique that students are not familiar with, I feel like it is a beautiful way to understand one’s body and to learn how to move with infinite possibility.

The Daily Herald

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