Teen-ager dances onto bigger stage Opportunity: A Centennial High School senior prepares for an apprenticeship with New York's prestigious Dance Theatre of Harlem.

November 18, 1996|By Tonya Jameson | Tonya Jameson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Some toddlers run before they walk. Alicia Graf danced.

After performances in Mississippi and Russia, the Centennial High School senior will soon join the world-renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem.

"It really hasn't hit me yet," says Alicia, 17, who is concentrating on her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Ballet Royale Academy's production of "The Nutcracker" on Nov. 29 and 30 in Columbia.

The next day, she will leave Ellicott City to join the prestigious New York City company as an apprentice dancer with a one-year contract. During that year, she will tour Europe and participate in the company's outreach programs throughout the United States.

For Alicia, it is a dream come true. She wrote about Dance Theatre of Harlem's founder, Arthur Mitchell, in a high school term paper about black dance. Her aunt once gave her a poster signed by Mitchell saying, "I hope to see you at Dance Theatre of Harlem."

Prom will be a missed dance, and the gifted-and-talented student with a 1,170 out of 1,600 Scholastic Assessment Test score will not walk across Centennial's graduation stage. She says she will try to finish her education in New York.

Alicia's parents noticed her love of dance when she was a toddler. She would sit in the middle of the floor, bouncing and swaying to her father's favorite jazz music, says her mother, Martha Graf. By age 3, she was dancing in homemade costumes at family gatherings.

"People would say, 'Thank you, Alicia. Thank you,' " her mother says. "And she wouldn't stop."

As she became older, her dancing took her to new heights. Her mother recalls cooking dinner and seeing a foot flying past her head.

Her instructor says Alicia's long limbs and small torso give her the perfect body for a dancer. She is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs about 120 pounds.

"I don't think she anticipated her dancing would lead to a career," says instructor Donna Harrington-Payne, owner of the Ballet Royale Academy. "When I started teaching her at age 12, I knew this child could have a career if she wanted."

Alicia's life revolves around the studio on Red Branch Road, off Route 108 in Ellicott City. She arrives after school and stays until 9 p.m. -- either taking dance classes or teaching them. She has been trained in classical, pointe and modern dance. She prefers classical.

In class, Alicia bends and flexes her body as if she were a Twizzler licorice twist. She maintains her balance as she stands on her right leg with her left leg arched, her arm extended upward and her eyes staring at some distant place.

Although she is quick to smile outside the studio, inside she only smiles on those few occasions when she feels she has executed a move correctly.

Alicia's love of ballet has been a learning experience for her parents. Her mother, a former fashion model, is a faculty consultant at Howard University. Her father, Arnold Graf, is a mid-Atlantic director of Industrial Areas Foundation, a community outreach program.

"It's a world we knew nothing about. We didn't have any way of judging that she would be that good," her father says. "People would say she could be a star. We didn't know."

So, they trusted Harrington-Payne.

The dance instructor -- who attended the Royal Ballet School in London and has taught in Britain and Belgium -- took the responsibility seriously.

"You train a dancer -- you take her under your wing," says Harrington-Payne. "You only hope you're doing the best you can do. As a human being, you'd tie yourself in knots to get her a job with a company."

So Harrington-Payne prepared Alicia through competitions.

At 15, Alicia took part in the International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss., after coaching from David Howard, who owns a New York dance company, and Nadia Tikhonova, a former prima ballerina and graduate of Russia's Kirov Ballet Company.

Harrington-Payne recalls Tikhonova calling Alicia a "very good dancer, good legs, good feet, good head. Alicia can win gold medal."

Alicia, the youngest dancer at the contest, didn't place but was recognized by a dancing publication as a dancer with potential.

"I didn't know what I was getting myself into," Alicia says. "That was the time period where I really went from a little kid student to a refined dancer."

Last year, she was chosen to compete in the Helsinki International Ballet Competition, but broke her shoulder while playing near Centennial Park.

Although her student was disappointed, Harrington-Payne says, "You can't blame a child for wanting to be a child."

After her shoulder healed, she danced in the Vagonova Prix at the Maryinski Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, and received three standing ovations.

Tipper Gore was at the show and congratulated her backstage.

Afterward, Martha Graf says her daughter told her, "Mom I could fly."

Alicia won a pair of ballet shoes, which her parents display on a table in the living room.

In the basement, in a pile, her mother keeps every pair of ballet shoes she has worn. Alicia goes through several pairs a month.

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