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Alicia Graf Mack Named Director of Juilliard's Dance Division: "Dancers Are Thought Leaders"

Alicia Graf Mack becomes Juilliard's director of dance in July. Photo Courtesy Webster University.

July 1 marks an exciting new era for The Juilliard School. Vail Dance Festival director and former New York City Ballet principal Damian Woetzel steps into the role of president, and the dance division will also have a new leader: Alicia Graf Mack, 39, will take over from Taryn Kaschock Russell, acting artistic director for the current school year.


As a performer, Mack was a beloved star at Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and also a guest performer for Beyoncé and Alicia Keys.

But she's no stranger to higher education. Early in her career, she earned an undergraduate degree in history from Columbia University, and, later, she took a break from dancing with Ailey and pursued a master's at Washington University in St. Louis. She majored in nonprofit management, focusing on arts administration.

Since retiring from Ailey, Mack has stood at the front of the room as an educator. She's currently based in Houston, where she's wrapping up teaching commitments as an adjunct dance instructor at the University of Houston and as a visiting assistant professor of dance at Webster University in St. Louis. Dance Magazine spoke with Mack about her appointment as director of The Juilliard School's dance division.Mack brings her rich performance experiences to the students of Juilliard. Dance St. Louis, Courtesy Juilliard.

How are you feeling right now?

I'm deeply honored, I'm incredibly excited. My head is absolutely spinning from the buzz. My family's from the East Coast, my brothers live in New York City, and my sister is also a dancer, so all of this is just so exciting for me and my family.

What was the selection process like?

It was an open, national search. I went through the application page on Juilliard's website and submitted my cover letter and resumé. Then I went through a three-month process, going through rounds of interviews, writing a vision statement, meeting students, meeting faculty. It was quite involved.

Do you know if you'll be teaching as well?

I'm not sure if I will have a regular class, but I would love to be in the studio. That is a place where I feel that I can connect the most with the student body.


Mack is looking forward to connecting with dancers in the studio. Courtesy Juilliard.


What value do you see in dancers going to college?

I think, today, dancers must be equipped for an ever-changing landscape. The field is so different, even from when I was performing. Job opportunities, it seems, in large dance companies are starting to narrow, and dancers have to be equipped with versatile training and entrepreneurial skills in order to stay relevant and employable.

I want to empower young artists to step boldly into the world upon graduation knowing that they can create their own opportunities and their own realities if they are not presented immediately.

And I think that the role of higher education is different than that of a professional training program. My charge at Juilliard is not only to make sure that the dancers are physically capable, but that they are thought leaders and they are provoking thinkers and they are citizens of the world.

Artistically, what are you hoping to see in the next generation of Juilliard dancers?

I would like them to hold on to the historical perspective that the training has provided them. If dancers are trained very rigorously in the foundational techniques of classical ballet and modern dance, that gives them a very special sense of themselves and of performance techniques. Moving forward, these dancers are also poised to be leaders in a new sort of contemporary modality of movement, and I see them continuing to push the envelope of physicality and finding new ways of creating dance.

As an African-American woman, what does this position mean to you?

So much. I do realize that this is a historic appointment, and I believe that hiring a woman of color to lead the dance division into the 21st century is a signal to the world. And I believe that under the leadership of Damian Woetzel and provost Ara Guzelimian, it is clear that they are not interested in the status quo in dance or the arts. They are ready to see all of the possibilities and invite all of the different voices in the Juilliard community. And I believe that these guiding principles will permeate through the institution right down to the students.

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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