Why I Dance
A one-time principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alicia Graf attracted attention the minute she joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2005. With her extra long gorgeous legs, vulnerable face, and mass of curls, she is a presence onstage you don't easily forget (see cover story, Dec. 06). Plus, she infuses each of her roles with heart and soul. A graduate of Columbia University, Graf has written for Dance Magazine and other publications.
Why do I dance? If I could take a guess, I would simply say that God designed my body to move. I can't sit still for more than 10 minutes. I can't read and listen to music at the same time because my mind starts choreographing. Even now, as I try to find the words to type, my leg is bouncing incessantly to some internal rhythm. There was a point in my life when I tried to leave dance behind, reconfigure my design. I failed miserably. So I realize that whatever I may do in my life, I will always be a dancer. My purpose is to move.
By the time I was 3 or 4 years old, I already considered myself an artist—not a technician or entertainer. Can you imagine? I wanted to be a performer who could make an audience cry. My mother, a woman of many talents, taught me about tension and texture before I even knew how to pirouette. She would show me how to hold a tight fist and make it shake to show anger, or how to flutter my fingers to evoke happiness. My dad, the most selfless man I know, influenced my approach as early as I can remember. My little sister is also a dancer. We grew up together in the studio. This is where I come from.
I have always taken this gift very seriously—maybe a little too seriously. I remember as a teenager forcing myself to perfectly execute eight 64-count developpés in every direction every night before bed to strengthen my legs. I slept in splits. I wanted my body to be the perfect instrument.
And now, at age 29, I understand that my body will never be perfect. And I like it that way. I have never been a conventional person, or a conventional dancer, so why start trying now? The stage is where my sometimes awkward social ways and my desire to affect people are advantages. The stage is my platform for transformation. I move my body and in turn, I move the hearts of people without so much as a word. I love my job.
Dance is by far the most challenging profession on the planet. Dancers live out of suitcases away from their loved ones. We put our bodies through insane amounts of stretching, pulling, strengthening, and stress just to achieve a desired line or to simply get through a performance day. Staring at our images in ceiling-high mirrors for days at a time, our self-esteem is constantly challenged. Most of our hours are spent in dark, cold, concrete boxes called theaters. But baby, when the curtain rises, and those lights start shining, something deep inside is ignited. We create our own cosmos of joy and inspiration.
After 10 years of being a professional dancer I still think it's crazy that this is how I make my living. It is my job to show up at a theater on time, but my privilege to perform. While I am paid to execute steps, my true reward lies in the act of conversation through movement. Movement is how I speak. This is how I express myself to an audience and to my Creator, always giving thanks for life and the many stories I can share through this art form. Dancing, although for show, is a humble craft. I am constantly reminded that I am more than myself. I am Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison; I am Arthur Mitchell and Virginia Johnson; I am Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson. I am the present and the future of this legacy. Collectively we evolve—creatures of movement.
Photo by Andrew Eccles, Courtesy Ailey.
It's a cycle familiar to many: First, a striking image of a lithe, impossibly fit dancer executing a gravity-defying développé catches your eye on Instagram. You pause your scrolling to marvel, over and over again, at her textbook physique.
Inevitably, you take a moment to consider your own body, in comparison. Doubt and negative self-talk first creep, and then flood, in. "I'll never look like that," the voice inside your head whispers. You continue scrolling, but the image has done its dirty work—a gnawing sensation has taken hold, continually reminding you that your own body is inferior, less-than, unworthy.
It's no stretch to say that social media has a huge effect on body image. For dancers—most of whom already have a laser-focus on their appearance—the images they see on Instagram can seem to exacerbate ever-present issues. "Social media is just another trigger," says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with the dancers of Atlanta Ballet. "And dancers don't need another trigger." In the age of Photoshop and filters, how can dancers keep body dysmorphia at bay?
If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.
Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.
Every dancer knows that how you fuel your body affects how you feel in the studio. Of course, while breakfast is no more magical than any other meal (despite the enduring myth that it's the most important one of the day), showing up to class hangry is a recipe for unproductive studio time.
So what do your favorite dancers eat in the morning to set themselves up for a busy rehearsal or performance day?
When it comes to dance in the U.S., companies in the South often find themselves overlooked—sometimes even by the presenters in their own backyard. That's where South Arts comes in. This year, the regional nonprofit launched Momentum, an initiative that will provide professional development, mentorship, touring grants and residencies to five Southern dance companies.