MS. REBECCA SHEIR
As a little girl in Maryland, Alicia Graf Mack would rush home from school, pop in a video of legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey's classical dances and mimic the steps. Now, she's here in D.C. performing those very same pieces this week at the Kennedy Center. But as Mack tells Jessica Gould the road to success has been full of some pretty dramatic twists and turns.
MS. JESSICA GOULD
The late choreographer Alvin Ailey once said his masterpiece "Revelations" was based on blood memories of growing up African American in the Deep South. So as dancer Alicia Graf Mack arches her arms heavenward like a bird ready to take flight, she thinks about her ancestors who suffered through segregation and the relatives who struggle today.
MS. ALICIA GRAF MACK
Sometimes I think about my grandmother who is 95, this beautiful woman, she's still living and she lost her husband a few years ago and they had been married for over 70 years, and what she says to God when she thinks about her husband or when she is upset.
Then sometimes she thinks about her own story.
We've all been through times in our lives where we feel like we weren't going to make it through. So while I'm glad that it touches other people, it's deeply personal for me. It's just an opportunity to talk to God and to thank him or her for the gifts I have received.
Mack who grew up in Columbia, Maryland, began dancing when she was still in diapers.
I think I just was a born mover.
And she danced everywhere she could.
In the house...
In the supermarket.
Something about grocery store aisles were very appealing to me. I always danced down grocery store aisles and places where there was a lot of space.
By elementary school, Mack knew Alvin Ailey's most famous pieces by heart.
I had a VHS tape of "Revelations" that I would watch with one of my friends. We would try to imitate what was going on on the video.
Then by 17, Mack was starring in concerts of her own as a principle with the Dance Theater of Harlem in New York City.
For me, dance is such a part of me and just like when people get up and brush their teeth in the morning, I get up and I'm a dancer. That's what I do.
Lithe and long with legs that look as if they could skim the sky when she extends them, Mack was an instant sensation. Soon her image was plastered on subways and bus stops throughout the city. But after a few years, her joints, which had always bothered her, started acting up.
From the time I was young, I would have various joints that would swell and so I just went through life just draining various joints whenever they got swollen.
Doctors didn't know what to do and Mack was forced to give up dancing.
And we're sitting on the train and I look up and there's a picture of me above my head and it was just painfully ironic and I broke down in the subway car.
She was just 21 and the life she knew was over.
I had trained to be a dancer my whole life. I did not go to college so when my career was finished, I had no job, no career option. I lived in New York City, I couldn't pay my rent. Like, these are major things. I didn't want to go home. I felt like a failure.
So Mack turned in her toe shoes and began again. She went to college studying history at Columbia University and started preparing for a future in finance.
Everything can be stripped away, but that just means that you build even stronger.
Then as Mack's body began feeling better, she decided to give dancing one more chance.
And I thought, I'm just going to try it for a year and a year turned into six amazing years.
During her 20s, Mack danced with Dance Theater of Harlem, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and eventually Alvin Ailey American Theater, performing the same steps she'd practiced in her living room back in Maryland.
I feel like, to perform "Revelations," it's a huge honor to know that 23 million people have seen "Revelations" in its lifetime. You have a responsibility to do it well.
It's seemed too good to last and it was. After three years with Ailey, Mack's joints began to bother her again. So she said her goodbyes one more time.
I moved to St. Louis, Missouri, because my then boyfriend, now husband, was living there at the time.
She studied nonprofit management in hopes of leading her own company one day and she started teaching on the side. But dance kept calling her back.
I would be teaching and in between every class that I would teach at the university, I'd take a class.
Now, with a new treatment for her aliment, which doctors think is a form of arthritis, Mack is back with Ailey.
It's beautiful, it's powerful and it's touching and there's nothing else like it in the world.
And this time, she says she's determined to make the most of every minute while she still can.
When I was younger, I stressed about everything. I wanted to please everybody. I wanted to be perfect and in doing that, I realized that I was denying myself some of the joy of being a dancer. Now, it's about sharing and enjoying the craft and living in it.
Call it a revelation. I'm Jessica Gould.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will be performing at the Kennedy Center through Sunday. You can learn more about the company and see pictures of Alicia Graf Mack on our website, metroconnection.org.
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