On paper, there are a number of reasons why Alicia Graf Mack shouldn't be a successful dancer.
She's 6 feet 2 on her tiptoes, making it harder to find male partners tall enough for her. She's biracial, growing up in a time when African-American ballerinas are few. And she has suffered multiple injuries of the career-ending variety.
Yet the lead dancer of the world-famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre — who left for New York City in the middle of her senior year at Cenntennial High School to join the equally renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem — demonstrated last week why none of those things matter.
She returned to the county where she grew up to teach two master classes in modern dance on Oct. 19 at the Howard County Center for the Arts as part of the 30th anniversary celebration of one of her alma maters, the Ellicott City-based Kinetics Dance Theatre.
Mack is striking, with her cloud of dark curls and soulful brown eyes. She is even finer-boned in person than she appears in photos, where her lithe frame and long legs trick the eye into believing she must be larger and more muscular to execute such strong moves on stage.
In reality, the classically trained dancer wears pants in size double zero extra-extra long. Her petite frame masks physical power that is undeniable, and her performances draw exuberant praise from dance critics everywhere.
The Los Angeles Times recently described an Ailey performance as filled with "sculptural poses, uber-arched backs and entwined limbs," and singled out Mack as "mesmerizing." The New York Times labeled her "radiant" and marveled over a too-good-to-be-true poster that depicts her "as she floats in the air, her legs pointing in opposite directions."
"I've known since I was little that I was made to move," said Mack, now a youthful 34. "Even when I was reading or studying, I always had one leg bopping up and down.
"I run on physicality, and when I can't move, a part of me is not fully functioning," observed the dancer, who loves ballet, modern and jazz styles equally. "And I know I will be that way until I die."
She longed to become a professional dancer from a very young age and studied at Kinetics from ages 3 to 12. She then transferred to the Columbia-based Ballet Royale Institute of Maryland, where she trained under Donna Pidel for five years.
When she was invited to teach, she jumped at the chance to relive old memories and to visit her parents, Martha and Arnie Graf, who live in Ellicott City.
"I loved it here. It was a magical place and we really learned," she said.
Keith Nichols, who co-founded Kinetics in 1984 with Dottie Fried and Stephanie Simmons, sat in on the sessions. He recalled that when Mack was but 4 years old, she was "all determination."
"Alicia was born with too much energy," he said with a laugh. "But all of sudden, at a very young age, she became this really, really good dancer."
Her facility and talent were clearly on display on Saturday as she worked with dance students who, to their credit, kept up with her limber and fluid movements as she put them through several demanding routines.
Lauren Snyder, who is in her first season as Kinetic's new artistic director, was excited to have a dancer of Mack's caliber helping the studio mark an important milestone.
"It's so great that she's from this area and can be here with us to inspire younger dancers," she said.
'Know who you are'
Between classes Mack took questions from students and their parents on a brick patio in front of the arts center.
Eva Labuda, of Ellicott City, who had come to observe her 16-year-old daughter, Klaudia, as she danced in the first session, called Mack "an inspiration.