Instagram

A Day in the Life of Alicia Graf Mack, Head of Juilliard's Dance Division

Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.


A twist of fate led to her first higher-ed teaching job, at Webster University in Missouri. "A friend was teaching there, and he had to leave the position. I was in St. Louis, so they asked me to step in," Mack says. "I loved that year in the studio." After another performing stint with AAADT, she returned to Webster while also working as an adjunct at Washington University. Three years later, she moved to Houston to teach at the University of Houston while maintaining some guest teaching at Webster before applying for the Juilliard role. "I felt that my time as a performing artist and a teaching artist, combined with my education, had prepared me for leadership," she says. "I'd studied marketing, fundraising, organizational behavior, human resources, branding—how an institution is run from the top."

Plus, she'd grown to relish working with college students. "This age group is ready to expand in so many directions," Mack says. "They're ready to receive information that might challenge their sensibilities and the foundational knowledge they've received."

The changes she's made to Juilliard's course offerings since taking the helm in July 2018 reflect her philosophy of expanding students' horizons. In her first semester, Mack launched Ballet Lab, a class that she says "uses ballet technique as a jump-off point for movement exploration." More recent initiatives include a contemporary floorwork class, more world dance classes, hip hop in the core curriculum, pedagogy for fourth-years, and a third-year elective composition class involving technology and media. Meanwhile, more guest artists and speakers are rotating through Juilliard's halls, to help dancers feel connected with what's happening outside of school.

This year's first-year class is the first group Mack helped select. "I wanted to find dancers who demonstrated something unique, who possessed that intangible quality that makes your eye go to them," she says. "The result is an extremely diverse group in many ways: racially, in terms of body type, and even in how much ballet they've had. Many people have asked me my vision for The Juilliard School. These students—they are my vision." DT spent a day with Mack in September, as she started to watch her hard work bear fruit.

8:45 am - Arrive at Lincoln Center

Mack commutes into Manhattan from New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two small children. Her workday often starts on the hour-and-a-half train ride; she takes advantage of the downtime to catch up on e-mails.

9–9:45 AM - Observe Dance History Class

When instructor Wendy Perron (former editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine) asks Mack to share a few memories from her performing career, Mack speaks not only about her own experiences, but also about pivotal moments in dance history. No stranger to the lectern, Mack co-taught this class with dance critic Mindy Aloff in spring 2019. Mack's goal for the course is for students to understand their place in the lineage, and before she leaves, she tells them, "You are now a part of this amazing dance family tree."

10–10:20 am - Warm-Up Before Teaching

"Teaching has such a different physicality than taking class," Mack says. "This year, I'm making a concerted effort to keep movement as a part of my life."

10:30 am–12 pm - Teach Ballet 4

The ballet class she gives is clean and calm. She calls pliés a "moving meditation," and offers vivid imagery: "Gather the whole world with you," she says, as she demonstrates a port de bras. She often asks students what they're thinking, rather than issuing rigid corrections. "When I looked around the room today," she says later, "everyone seemed very placed. I didn't want to mess with that. Sometimes, as teachers, we're always correcting, instead of saying, 'Actually, what you're doing is really good!'"

12:15–1:15 pm - Observe Modern Classes

Mack peeks into first-year Graham technique, taught by Terese Capucilli, and fourth-year Horton technique, taught by Milton Myers. "Our students work so hard, and the faculty are legends," she says. "It's a treasure trove in every room." She's particularly interested in Myers' class because she now leads a Horton class of her own, for second-years in the spring semester. Myers was her first Horton teacher, and she says, "I want to make sure the information I give doesn't contradict him, because he's the master."

1:40–2:30 pm - Office Hours

During lunch break, Mack makes herself available for student meetings: "We'll talk about their classes, auditions they're interested in or projects they want to work on outside of school, challenges they're having—sometimes, they just want to say hello!"

4–7 pm - Observe ChoreoComp Auditions

Each fall, six third-year choreographers are chosen by faculty to participate in Choreographers and Composers, aka "ChoreoComp," in which each dancemaker is paired with a student composer. Second-year dancers make up the cast, while nonchoreographing third-years act as the production crew. Mack is not sitting in on the dancer auditions in any official capacity, but rather because "I like to hear the students' ideas and see how things unfold."

Being a real presence in the studio, not only as an authority figure but also as a fellow artist, is key to how Mack is approaching her tenure. "My first year was all about observing and listening," she says, "and now we're in the implementation period. It's time to see how my ideas are affecting the students, and that means communicating openly and being in the room."

Photo by Rachel Papo

Speaking to Dance History class: The goal is for students to understand their place in the lineage. "You are now a part of this amazing family tree."

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Tribune

Finding age-appropriate hip-hop music can be a struggle. Choreographer Afaliah Tribune addresses this common dilemma for hip-hop teachers by making her own original tracks on GarageBand. "I love experimenting with live music, and my students think it's fun, too," says Tribune, who is an adjunct professor of dance at New York University. "There are so many ways we can open up our work when we experiment with sound."

Keep reading...
Instagram
Karen Hildebrand (center) with 2019 DT Awardee Marisa Hamamoto and members of Infinite Flow. Photo by Joe Toreno

Every year in our summer issue, we honor four dance educators for their outstanding contributions to the field. Recipients have included studio owners, professors, program directors, K–12 teachers and more, whose specialties run the gamut of dance genres.

We need your help to identify this year's best in the profession. Do you have a colleague or mentor who deserves to be recognized as a leader and role model?

Send your nomination by March 1, 2020. You can e-mail us at danceteachereditors@dancemedia.com with the following details:

Keep reading...
Sponsored by Akada Software
Photo by Jenny Studios, courtesy of Utah Dance Artists

Running a dance school used to involve a seemingly endless stream of paperwork. But thanks to the advent of software tailored specifically for dance studios' needs, those hours formerly spent pushing papers can now be put to better use.

"Nobody opens a dance studio because they want to do administrative work," says Brett Stuckey, who leads Akada Software's support team. "It's our job to get you out of the office and back into your classroom."

We talked to Stuckey about how a studio software program can streamline operations, so you can put your energy toward your students.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Barbara Bashaw in Thompson Hall of Columbia Teachers College. Photo by Kyle Froman

Barbara Bashaw has always been a pioneer. Since kicking off her career in education by building a dance program from the ground up at an elementary school in Brooklyn, she's gone on to become an inspiring force in teacher training. Now, as director of the new doctoral program in dance education at Columbia University's renowned Teachers College and as executive director of the even newer Arnhold Institute for Dance Education Research, Policy & Leadership, she's in a position to effect change nationwide.

"The study of dance education is a young field," Bashaw says. "Music and visual arts are far ahead of us, in terms of the research that has been done, as well as the foothold they have in education. Anywhere education is being discussed, we want to put dance on the table—and that means developing researchers and championing research that will push public policy." In a climate where arts education feels both more endangered and more necessary than ever, Bashaw is ready to blaze a trail.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Photo courtesy of Harkness Center for Dance Injuries

When orthopedic surgeon Dr. Donald Rose founded the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital 30 years ago, the average salary for a dancer was about $8,000, he says.

"It was very hard for a dancer to get quality medical care," he remembers. What's more, he adds, "at the time, dance medicine was based on primarily anecdotal information rather than being based on studies." Seeing the incredible gaps, Rose set out to create a medical facility that was designed specifically to treat dancers and would provide care on a sliding scale.

Keep reading...
Dancer Health
Getty Images

It's time to talk seriously about safety in dance education. As the physical and psychological demands put on student dancers escalates—thanks to competitions, social media and ever-evolving choreography—there is a pressing need to consider how we can successfully safeguard young dancers.

Keep reading...
Dance News
Photo by Melissa Sherwood, courtesy of MGDC

Martha Graham Dance Company created The EVE Project to mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of U.S. women's right to vote. The female-focused initiative includes new works, as well as the company's classic repertoire highlighting Martha Graham's heroines and antiheroines. In April, the company is showing the newly reconstructed Circe, Graham's 1963 interpretation of the Greek myth, at New York City Center. Dancing the role of Circe is company member So Young An. Here, she shares thoughts on The EVE Project and how she's approaching her role in Circe, the 57-year-old work that invites audiences to consider pressing conversations about womanhood.

Keep reading...
Dance News
Instead of letting 1920s stereotypes of black dancers define her, Josephine Baker used her image to propel herself to stardom and eventually challenged social perceptions of black women. Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

In honor of Black History Month, here are some of the most influential and inspiring black dancers who paved the way for future generations.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I'm having such a love-hate relationship with mirrors right now. They can be distracting, as well as cause emotional distress for my students. At the same time, they're a really useful tool. I know some teachers remove theirs altogether. Is this something you recommend?

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips

Susan Pilarre has been closely tied to the School of American Ballet for nearly her entire life.

From her first class there at age 11 through her 16-year career with its affiliated company, New York City Ballet, Pilarre learned directly from the great choreographer George Balanchine, absorbing the details of his unique style. Sensing her innate understanding of his principles, Balanchine encouraged her to teach; she joined SAB's permanent faculty in 1986. Since then, she has become recognized as an authority on Balanchine's teachings, instilling SAB and NYCB's distinctive speed, clarity and energy into generations of dancers.

Here, Pilarre shares how the specifics that Balanchine insisted upon in class contribute to the strength, beauty and musicality that define his style—and dispels common misconceptions.

Keep reading...

To celebrate Valentine's Day in the most dance-centric way possible, we sat down with five powerhouse dance-teaching couples to talk about their love stories. What do they admire about each other? What are their couple goals and their teaching philosophies, and how do they make their relationships work, especially when they work together? Get ready to swoon!

Keep reading...
For Parents
Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of BAE

Watching through the studio windows—or even from the sidelines in a Mommy and Me class—can surely make parents wonder what exactly our little tykes are getting out of weekly ballet lessons. After all, they're repeating the same things class after class. Are they bored? Are they progressing? Why are they doing that again?

Keep reading...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox