Teaching Tips

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."

Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.

His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.

"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

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