Alicia Graf Mack began dancing when she was still in diapers.
"I think I was just a born mover," says the Columbia, Md. native.
And she danced everywhere she could... in the house and in the supermarket. She says there was something about grocery aisles that were appealing to her. By elementary school, Mack knew legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey's most famous pieces by heart.
"I had a VHS tape of Revelations that I would watch with one of my friends. I had never seen people of color dance in the concert setting. So to see something that mirrored me was very special," says Mack, who is biracial.
By 17, Mack was starring in concerts of her own, as a principal with the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City.
"For me, dance is such a part of me, just like when people get up and brush their teeth in the morning," she says. "I get up and I'm a dancer and that's what I do."
Dancing in a new direction
Lithe and long, with legs that look as if they could skim the sky when she lifts 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 started acting up.
"From the time I was young, I would have various joints that would swell," says Mack. "So I went through life draining various joints that would get swollen."
Doctors didn't know what to do, and Mack was forced to give up dancing.
"I remember my dad brought me to the doctor, and I had had a really bad diagnosis," she says. "We were sitting on the train, and I look up and there's a picture of me above my head. And I just broke down in the subway car."
Mack was just 21, and the life she knew was over.
"I had trained to be a dancer my whole life," says Mack. "I did not go to college. I had no job. I had no career option. I lived in New York City. I couldn't pay my rent. 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, and you know herself better," she says.
Second chance with dance
Then, as Mack's body began feeling better, she decided to give dancing one more chance.
"I thought I'm just going to try it for a year," she says. "And one year turned into six amazing years."
During her 20s, Mack danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and eventually Alvin Ailey American Dance 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," she says of Ailey's signature work. "To know that 23 million people have seen Revelations in its lifetime, you have a responsibility to do it well."
It 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.
Living life and dancing
Mack moved to St. Louis to be with her then-boyfriend, now husband. She studied nonprofit management, in hopes of leading her own company one day. She also started teaching on the side. But dance kept calling her back.
"I would be teaching, and in between every class, I would take a class," she says.
Now, with a new treatment for her ailment, which doctors think is a form of arthritis -- Mack is back with Ailey.
"It's beautiful. It's touching. And there's nothing else like it in the world," she says.
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," she says. "I wanted to please everyone. I wanted to be perfect. And in doing that, I denied myself some of the joy of being a dancer. Now it's just about sharing and enjoying the craft and living in it."
Call it a revelation.
[Music: "Tiny Dancer" by Boko Suzuki from Elton John: A Piano Tribute]
Photos: Alicia Graf Mack