Celebrating Dance Magazine Award Honoree Alicia Graf Mack
A review of Alicia Graf Mack’s first five years at the helm of The Juilliard School’s dance division—she is its youngest and first African American head—reveals that her 2018 appointment was an undeniably historic event. It has signaled a paradigm shift both in terms of race and representation and the school’s pedagogical philosophy. “On a macro level, what she is doing is influencing the very future of dance,” says Juilliard president Damian Woetzel.
“I’m very lucky to have come into the school at a time when my personal values align with the institutional values,” Graf Mack says. Those core values include diversity, equity, and inclusion. But Graf Mack has added “belonging” to that list. “While an institution can think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, only the individual can tell you if they feel like they belong,” she says. “Even students who aren’t part of an underrepresented group need to have a sense of belonging.”
That sentiment is rooted in Graf Mack’s experience taking company class with Arthur Mitchell during her first year as a member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, one of the two companies, along with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where she spent most of her time as a critically acclaimed professional dancer. “It’s a different type of feeling, stepping into a room where you don’t feel you have to fight against something or prove yourself because you look different,” she says. “That general sense of belonging helped me to grow and be my authentic self.
Transformation is at the center of Graf Mack’s vision for Juilliard. Creating an institution that is “a reflection of the world we want to see,” she says, requires engaging with a broader and more diverse community. It also means making space for dancers who identify as nonbinary in bathrooms, dressing rooms, and beyond.
And there’s been a change in that aesthetic hierarchy called “the canon.” Choreographers once ignored or marginalized are being elevated and celebrated. Dance styles such as hip hop and West African dance, once electives, are now part of the core curriculum. Acknowledging the changing nature of the field, and the fact that a dancer’s professional life is often all too short, the department has integrated the majority of its required classes into the first three years of study, so the fourth year can be “an on-ramp into the field,” Graf Mack says. Students in the class of 2024 have been able to accept jobs with companies including Ailey, Cincinnati Ballet, and Batsheva Ensemble while remaining fully enrolled at Juilliard and able to graduate on time.
In the final analysis, Graf Mack says simply, “You’re going to see the excellence and the magic of it all.” The future of the dance world is in her hands, and she carries the weight of that responsibility with amazing grace.