But her body soon betrayed her. The pain in her knee and ankle flared; her elbows and hips swelled and hurt; and she developed uveitis. 

Her rheumatologist prescribed adalimumab (Humira) and methotrexate, as well as a daily course of steroid eye drops. She was frustrated. “First, you have to keep adalimumab cold,” she says. “Ailey is on tour six to eight months of the year. How was I supposed to do that?” What’s more, the methotrexate thinned her hair and the eye drops caused cataracts, clouding her vision. 

“I was dancing well and getting acclaim,” she says. But after three years, “I was in too much pain and taking all this medication. It didn’t make sense.” It was a tough decision, but Alicia is pragmatic. “When I was 20, I didn’t think I’d ever be dancing again,” she says. “I got to dance for six more years.

The Encore

This time, she moved to St. Louis, got married and earned a master’s degree. After another knee surgery, she started teaching dance, then performing in small venues. Word got out that she was dancing, and soon after, in 2011, she rejoined the company. “And here I am,” she says. “Dancing, dancing, dancing.”

Life is good. Her uveitis has cleared, and she has cut her medication dosages in half, which she partially attributes to a diet overhaul. Always conscious of what she ate, she is now following a gluten-free and mostly dairy-free diet. It’s helping, she says. 

“My job is really intense. Some days I have arthritis pain and some days I have dancer pain. It’s hard to say which is which,” she says.

“I am not supposed to be here dancing at the highest level,” she admits. “It is not supposed to be possible, but somehow it is. That makes it more of a blessing that I don’t take for granted.”

She knows many people don’t understand what she is up against. “When you are young and say you have arthritis, people don’t think it’s a serious disease,” says Alicia.

But it is, and she has made her peace with it. “If you are happy in life, it’s a lot easier to deal with. I love my job. That helps me work through the issues I have.”

And if one day she has to walk away from dance again? “Look how much I’ve done,” she says. “I can’t be upset. I have an amazing husband to go home to and my whole life ahead of me."

See Alicia Graf Mack perform: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's 2014 tour schedule covers 23 North American cities, and runs through May 11. For details, visit alvinailey.org.