Graf was still off the charts when ranking dance stars

In mid-December, we caught Columbia's Alicia Graf in a premiere program presented by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. Seeing her back performing with Ailey as part of the company's 50th anniversary celebrations was definitely a highlight of this fan's 2011 dance year.

It was just last summer that the stunning, 5-foot-10-inch Alicia (now known officially as Alicia Graf Mack) rejoined Ailey's troupe. Soon she was back in the thick of a world tour that garnered her much deserved recognition for her sublime dancing.

Still, my fondest remembrance of Alicia's dancing came in late spring at the Ballet Royale studio on Red Branch Road, where she danced a solo for friends, families and, especially, for mentor Donna Pidel. Indeed, the Columbia native is the shiniest star in this planet's dance galaxy, and ranks first in our list of best dance performances of 2011.

Now directed by Robert Battle, the Alvin Ailey dance company returns to the Kennedy Center Feb. 7-12. Look for Alicia in a number of new works, as well as front and center holding the big umbrella as the church ladies come promenading in during the rocking finale of Ailey's signature piece, "Revelations."

Alicia's sister, Dashia Graf, is making waves in the entertainment world with gigs in New York City and the West Coast. She can be seen in the 3-D version of the film "Step Up" and "Step Up 2 the Streets." Check out the YouTube clip of Jill Scott at the Essence Music Festival. Daisha is the solo dancer behind the screen and she sure can move

Women who wowed us

Looking over the rest of the leading female dancers of 2011, it could easily have been dubbed "the year of the ballerina." Women wowed us in dance performances throughout the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Here are a few of the top picks in the female category:

It's tough to choose only one in the Washington Ballet's roster of ballerinas. Maki Onuki was a favorite at the Bodrum Festival, held in a castle on the Adriatic Sea. Company apprentices Sarah Walborn and Amber Lewis charmed us with their vim and vigor in the "Rock 'n Roll" program, and back home in Washington, Sona Kharatian stood out in "The Great Gatsby" at the Kennedy Center in October. We were riveted by her gorgeous, sexy, on-the-money dancing as a lady of the night. Of course, she did get some helps from the guys, especially her suitor, Luis R. Torres, and Jared Nelson as Gatsby, dancing with his Daisy — hot, hot, hot.

If you saw her, you will never forget Nina Anaiashvilli's performance with the State Ballet of Georgia at Lisner Auditorium in November. This prima ballerina performed the incredible "Dying Swan" solo and, after a 15-minute standing ovation (and lots of flag waving from her native fans), danced an encore. We couldn't have asked for more.

Likewise for Diana Vishneva with the Mariinsky Ballet at the Kennedy Center during the winter season. To dance the role of "Giselle" is a work of art that this Russian prima ballerina took to another level. It was sublime, unearthly dancing. The image of her floating across the stage still lingers months after this engagement. Boasting an artistic legacy that spans more than 200 years, St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Ballet returns with "Les Saisons Russes" at the Kennedy Center, Jan. 17-22.

For "Nutcracker" balletomanes, two Sugarplums stand out — Paloma Herrera in the American Ballet Theater's new version at the Kennedy Center earlier this month and L'Etoile Ballet/The Russian Ballet Academy of Maryland's production in Carroll County with guest artist Violetta Angelova. Let's hope they bring her back for the spring performance. Meanwhile, you can see ABT at the KenCen's Opera House Jan. 31 to Feb. 5.

If the New York City Ballet is the quintessential American ballet company — energetic, athletic and bright — then Suzanne Farrell is the absolute embodiment of its style. When her company performed a winter Balanchine program at the Kennedy Center, the spirit of her mentor surely smiled approvingly from the wings. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2012.

The show must go on

Whether it's the thundering hoofers in Toby's productions of "Anything Goes" and "Dream Girls," or the superb stylists of "La Cage Aux Folles," jazzy tap was back in 2011. Hats off to "Les Cagelles" (the chorines in "La Cage") in its recent stop at the Hippodrome Theater.

Oh, how we loved watching these guys kick up their legs in high heels and gorgeous dresses. I think they could sell out a house with just their routines. Let's hope "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" comes to Baltimore real soon.

Columbia song and dance man Jay Frisby stood out in the touring production of "South Pacific" at the Hippodrome in September. There's a future for this Glenelg Country School alum who went on to Yale, then Broadway. His mentor, Carole Graham Lehan, also stood out with her fabulous interpretation of Roxy Hart in Toby's "Chicago," ending in a cartwheel split that defies words.

Soon after the Japanese earthquake tragedy, Misako Aoki-Oda organized a dance benefit at the Howard County Center for the Arts in April to help the people of her native country. Most memorable was her lovely Asian piece that featured 13-year-old Hana Takemoto in "Red Dragonfly."

That same month, national and international dance stars put their talents to work for the humanitarian relief efforts in Japan. Hosted by the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park and organized by dancer Adrienne Canterna and the American Red Cross, the show turned out to be a terrific night of dance. It was also a reunion, of sorts, with many former dancers from the Baltimore area. Adrienne's duet with her husband, Rasta Thomas, and her sister Ashley's powerful contemporary piece will long be appreciated.

Columbia native Alex Ketley created a wonderful piece for the TV show, "So You Think You Can Dance." The sought-after choreographer worked with a man in a wheel chair and his able-bodied partner — a smashing success that should be repeated in 2012.

Then there was sadness in the dance world, as we lost Becky Jung, a beautiful young women who brought joy to anyone who ever saw her dance, especially at the Columbia Festival of the Arts celebrations. The UMBC graduate and member of Pilobolus died in New York City in September with friends at her side.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed its final concert at the Kennedy Center to a tearful audience earlier this month. Baltimore dancer Daniel Madoff danced especially beautifully, performing the same variation that Merce, himself, had done years earlier. It was a valiant tribute to the late director who shook the world with his innovative movement ideas.

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