On Her Toes Alicia Graf always wanted to be a ballerina, and now she is realizing that dream, leaping from high school to the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

April 06, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Alicia Graf was 12 when Donna Harrington Payne first spotted her.

Instead of a still-growing adolescent, Payne saw a girl with an elegant head and a luxuriously long neck. Her shoulders were graceful and slightly sloping. Her torso was short; her long legs strong but lean, with muscles so elongated her thighs were nearly the same width as her calves. The bones and joints in her feet and toes were sturdy and hyperflexible. Her hip sockets allowed nearly 180 degrees of rotation.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, I can really work this girl and really create a beautiful dancer,' " says Payne, a teacher and choreographer. "Every ballet dancer has to have specific qualities, and this little girl had them all."

That was five years ago. Now 18, Alicia recently has made the leap from student at Payne's Ballet Royale Academy in Ellicott City to professional dancer at the internationally renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem.

In December, halfway through her senior year at Howard County's Centennial High, Alicia left her parents' home and moved to New York City. She has spent the past few months learning the dance company's repertoire, which ranges from ballet classics to just-choreographed modern dances. In recent weeks, she has traveled to Detroit and Richmond, Va., on her first professional tour. This week, she is scheduled to perform with the Dance Theatre at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

To those unacquainted with the world of dance, Alicia's transition from student to performer may seem natural, even inevitable. Alicia herself sounds slightly bewildered by it all. "I'm just surprised at how my life has turned out: So far it's awesome," she says. "Everything has come into place the way that I wanted it to. I don't know how that happened."

In her heart, though, she knows what every dancer knows: That of all the thousands of little girls who dream of being ballerinas, only a few hundred ever are.

Alicia also knows that everything in ballet -- whether pirouette or impeccable solo -- comes with hard work. It consists of endless repetitions and stretches, hours of rehearsals and the kind of drive that makes a young girl pass up homecomings and proms to practice despite sore muscles, blisters and, once, a broken collar bone.

And she understands that as she begins a career notorious for the physical and emotional demands it places upon its participants, her biggest challenges may lie ahead.

The soft-spoken teen-ager stands out in the world of dance for reasons beyond talent. At 5 fee 9 inches, she is several inches taller than the average dancer. She also is a young black woman trying to succeed in a performing art that historically has excluded any who didn't fit a narrowly defined -- and white -- image of what a dancer should be.

"Every artistic director has a preference," says Arthur Mitchell, 00 co-founder and director of the Dance Theatre. "Some people like 5 feet 5 inches. I like artists. And I want people who have the magic or have the possibility of bringing magic to the stage."

Mitchell is intimately acquainted with the challenges faced by African-American dancers. In 1955, he was the first African-American male to join a major American ballet company. As principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, he also became one of the few black dancers who has achieved international acclaim. In 1969, he gave up his dancing career to co-found, with dance teacher Karel Schook, the Dance Theatre.

Any dance career is demanding, Mitchell says. A career with Dance Theatre of Harlem comes with added responsibilities. "How many African-American dancers have you seen? That is part of the responsibility: Everything they do will set the landscape for those who follow."

Not everyone is willing to meet the physical and emotional demands. "In the first year, it is important for the new dancers to understand what it is to be a professional dancer: the daily grind, the focus, the discipline," he says.

"Many people desire the life of a dancer, but when they get into it, they realize that's not what they want to do. It takes focus and discipline and the thing is, Alicia seems very intelligent and extremely disciplined, but we will see."

But he adds softly, "I think there's a possibility, if you asked me a year from now I could say more. There was something I saw in an audition and in a class that if it comes through on stage "

For now, Alicia cannot think of anything in the world she'd rather be doing. "I have so much to learn. I know that. Especially when I look at the principal dancers: I just have so much to learn," she says.

"How many times do you see dancers on stage and you think, 'Oh that's good.' But think of those times that you see a dancer and you think 'Oh my God, that moved me,' " she says and clutches her chest.

That is what she wants people to say when she dances.

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