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Courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alicia Grad Mack began dancing with the Dance Theatre of Harlem at age 17.

Nothing can keep Alicia Graf Mack, GS '03 and recipient of the 2008 Columbia University Medal of Excellence, from the studio or stage—not even a troublesome case of spondylarthritis. Mack began her professional career with Dance Theatre of Harlem, when she was 17 and went on to become a member of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. She is currently a lead dancer for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Recently, she spoke with Spectator about her dance inspiration, the process behind becoming an artist, and how her time at Columbia shaped her as a dancer.

Rosalie Wetzel: Since you started at such a young age, how did you navigate and take on the professional dance world at 17?

Alicia Graf Mack: Starting at such a young age at Dance Theatre of Harlem was a crash course. From the moment I walked in, I was surrounded by many of my idols, so I felt like I had such a great responsibility to live up to that legacy and do everything that I could to do my best. The most influential person in my early years was Arthur Mitchell. He was the artistic director of the company at that time, and he was the one who really took me under his wing. He coached me, he developed me— not even just as a performer, but as an artist, and in thinking of myself as a brand  to make sure that I understood that I represented something greater than myself. I had to reflect that responsibility on and off the stage and outside of the dance world, and I think that was really important for me.

RW: When you are rehearsing a piece, where do you find inspiration for your movement? Does it vary by piece or do you find yourself repeatedly inspired by something specific?

AGM: It definitely varies by piece. Especially with Ailey, what's great is the repertoire is so diverse that I have been challenged to learn in so many different ways. Sometimes, it's a more collaborative process. Sometimes, it's really studying the music and being inspired by the music. Sometimes, it's finding mentors or coaches to really help you delve into a character. It's always really different, but that's what keeps it interesting.

I'm always thinking. There's been a handful of times where I am completely lost in the movement, and that's the high that we always look for. That's what keeps us wanting to dance. But usually I'm thinking of imagery or rhythmic patterns. Many times I think of music as imagery, and that helps to guide how I work.

RW: What influence did your time at Columbia have on your dance career?

AGM: It changed my life. I was recovering from an injury when I decided to go to Columbia and pursue a degree in history, and I was thinking that I wanted to have a complete career transition. It really allowed me to figure out who I was, because at the time I had only defined myself as a dancer and I had never thought about where my other talents or passions could be. Once I stepped back into the dance world, I felt like I had experience to draw upon, and I think that enhanced my dancing tenfold.

RW: As someone who has dealt with injury for many years, what advice would you give aspiring dancers struggling with injuries?

AGM: Number one is listen to your body. Dancers are trained to work through pain, but you have to understand your body well enough to know what kind of pain you can push through and what kind of pain you should not push through. The second thing is to take your time and heal, because dancing life can be very long. Take your time and heal well. The last thing I would say is to make sure you do something that makes you happy every day. Try not to focus on how far you have to go, but how far you've come.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. | @ColumbiaSpec 

dance Columbia Medal of Excellence Alvin Ailey