Alicia Graf
Alicia Graf (Photo by Kevin Garrett)

Here's good news for Howard County dance fans: In this season of homecomings (proms, reunions, and recitals), three of our topnotch dancers return to their roots for two separate programs that should delight both young and old, professional and amateur, balletomanes and street dance fans.

Leiland R. W. Charles, a 2014 Rising Star finalist and current member of the Alberta Ballet, will make an appearance for Kathi Ferguson's 25th anniversary celebration for her studio and company at the Howard County Center for the Arts. He is listed as "a surprise guest artist" at the Center's Black Box Theater this Sunday, and will continue to teach ballet technique classes through June 13, the day he returns to Canada.


Sisters Daisha Mack and Alicia Graf Mack join forces with other dance pros for the highly-touted "D(n)A Experience," a day filled with classes, discussions, and a jubilant gathering at the Ballet Royal Institute in Columbia, also this Sunday. Folks will be able to see (and try) modern, ballet and contemporary moves from the New York City dance scene where both sisters made their mark.

What a joy to report on hometown folks who have worked hard, made their own way and then come home again to share their talent…if only for a few days.

Raised in Columbia, Leiland Charles first stepped into a ballet studio at the age of 3 and has danced numerous leading roles in the Howard County Ballet productions. A finalist in the 2014 Rising Stars competition, he earned his B.F.A. in dance performance from the prestigious Juilliard School in Manhattan, and soon after took off to dance in Western Canada. For the moment, though, Leiland is home again.

Charles has been lauded for many roles along the way in the HCB's annual productions of "The Nutcracker." As a youngster, he played Fritz, and then, all grown-up, he was the leading Cavalier who dances the grand Pas de Deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Whatever that unique quality is that makes one performer stand out above the other, Charles has it. He has made audiences sit back and pay attention throughout his local dance career.

Artistic director Kathi Ferguson calls it "the memory of the muscles" – the physical process of passing along learned movements to the next generation of dancers. The longtime director of the Howard County Ballet is meticulous when it comes to preserving the classics and takes great care in reproducing the exact steps first danced in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century.

One reason, perhaps, why Ferguson has invited her protégé, to teach a series of ballet variation classes for her Howard County Ballet Company during his brief stay in Maryland. Charles learned the steps from Ferguson, who in turn learned them for a famous Russian teacher, and so on.

"Leiland is not only a phenomenal performer but a human video camera," Ferguson boasts. "He understands all aspects of the ballet. He knows how these dances should look from in front of the stage and from behind. And he is clear and direct."

There's something smart about the way he moves, particularly in his demonstration of classical ballet with more than a hint of contemporary dance mixed in. Strikingly good-looking, Charles could easily be envisioned in a Gene Kelly film or the new Broadway musical, "American in Paris." Yet he is capable of making corrections as serious as any Russian-trained dancer. "Pay attention to the music," he encourages an advanced group of dancers at a recent rehearsal at the Center for the Arts.

"Leiland is a good mentor…it's nice to have a male dancer teach us these steps," articulates Jeffrey Mensah, a science major at UMBC and one of the lead dancers in the Sunday performances. "He points out the importance of lifting the body upright, and encourages us to attain new heights."

Emma Esposito, a student at Bryn Mawr in Baltimore, nods in agreement. The tall, lithe ballerina has trained with Ferguson for 13 years pleased to be dancing with her HCB friends, especially Abi Duquette (Little Red Riding Hood) and, Charles, who has partnered the teenager in the past.

"Leiland has the ability to stay air bound for a long time, then perform cartwheels without touching the ground or using his hands for balance," gushes the usual soft-spoken Ferguson at the rehearsal. Indeed "Lelo," as his friends call him, seems to be buoyed on gusts of glory and acclaim these days.

The Howard County Ballet dances at the Howard County Center for the Arts Black Box Theater, 8510 High Ride Road, Ellicott City, Sunday, May 17, at 2 and 6 p.m. For ticket information, call 410-465-9414 or visit http://www.howardcountyballet.org.

These sisters have dance DNA

Social media continues its buzz with news on the Graf sisters much anticipated "day of dance." Alvin Ailey lead dancer, Alicia, and her younger sister, Daisha, a back up singer to the stars and featured dancer in the "Step Up" movies, achieved success with their dance workshops in New York City. Now they are embarking on their first national tour and the first stop is Columbia at Ballet Royale where both trained as young girls.


Alicia's professional performance resume is long and impressive, beginning with the Dance Theater of Harlem where she attracted accolades from The New York Times. Besides dazzling dance journalists in her first go-round with the world famous Ailey troupe, and before being sidelined by a leg injury, she also danced with Alonzo King's LINES Ballet, Complexions and with Beyonce at Radio City Music Hall.

"Daisha and I had both been living in New York City and thriving in our own circles of dance," says her big sister in a recent telephone conversation. "She (Daisha) worked as a commercial dancer performing with many famous recording artists, and I thrived as a concert dancer.

"We would walk down the street and young dancers would come up to us to take pictures and ask us questions about how we 'made it.' So now we are committed to giving aspiring artists more information about the professional world and mentoring young people to reach their greatest potential."

The Graf sisters will host a panel discussion featuring major artists and choreographers as well as teachers, agents and administrators in the arts and entertainment industry. In past years, panelists included: American Ballet Theater soloist, Misty Copeland. This time around, legendary Ailey dancer Renee Robinson will participate.

Alicia can astound, whether performing amazing feats of classical ballet, modern spirals, her own brand of undulating hip swings and head rolls, or that signature move of hers that consists of holding one leg stretched toward the ceiling while remaining solidly balanced.

Daisha lights up a room the moment she enters. Her broad smile elicits immediate joy. Together they radiate an energy that explodes in a dance studio, turning on kids who may never had this experience before.

"My sister and I have always had a desire to give back to the community who has given us so much," says Daisha with more than a hint of pride for her first dance teacher, Donna Pidel who will host the event. "She has seen me through every milestone and peak, and has helped me to fight my way back whenever I have had a setback. I am so grateful."


For Alicia, though, this visit will be special because it will be the first time she is bringing her new baby boy, Jordan Samuel, home to meet his grandparents, aunt, uncles and extended family and friends. "I am excited to bring him to the studio to see mommy in action."

The D(n)A Experience takes place at the Ballet Royale Institute of Maryland: 9147 Red Branch Rd Suite 4D, Columbia Sunday, May 17 from 8am-5pm. Scholarships are available and students can register by visitingwww.dnaartscollective.com.