Sitting in the audience, you can’t take your eyes off her.

She is impossibly graceful and long-limbed, standing 5 feet 10 inches, and en pointe is nearly six feet tall. She extends her legs so high that one critic wrote, “It’s as if she is trying to play footsy with God.” Another critic has called her “one of the most glorious dancers to step onto any stage.” 

That glorious dancer is Alicia Graf Mack, a lead dancer with the internationally acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It is incomprehensible that this beautiful, lithe, classically trained ballerina has been battling ankylosing spondylitis (first diagnosed as reactive arthritis) since 2000; that she has twice quit the profession she loves because of pain and disability; has twice made a comeback; and is now dancing in one of the nation’s premier dance companies. 

At 35, thanks to passion and persistence, she is living her dream, knowing that at any time a bad flare could bring the curtain down.

The First Act

Dancing is in Alicia’s DNA. “I think I was dancing out of the womb,” she says.

In 1996 the teenager headed for Manhattan, joining the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a professional ballet company. Three years later, “I woke up and my right knee was huge,” says Alicia. “It was like a melon.” 

Alicia huddled in bed. “I couldn’t work,” she says. “I could barely walk down the street.” After first being diagnosed with reactive arthritis, the final diagnosis: ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory form of arthritis. “You train your whole life to achieve this dream and all of a sudden, it’s finished,” she says. 

“Who would have thought that a healthy 20-year-old would have arthritis?” (See video of Alicia Graf Mack telling her story.)

Alicia began taking sulfasalazine weekly, had several surgeries and physical therapy – and did a reality check. “This totally rocked my world,” she says. “I decided I wasn’t going to be dancing anymore. I had had three surgeries. I was taking medication.” At age 21, she walked away from dance.

Back in Love 

Alicia took what she calls “a leap of faith.” She went to Columbia University, earned a degree in three years, and got a corporate job lined up for the fall.

But Alicia can’t not dance. Her symptoms had eased, so she joined a small dance company for a summer tour.

“Of course, I fell back in love with dance,” she admits. She returned to New York, quit the job and danced with various companies for two years before she was invited to join Alvin Ailey company – a dream she’d had since childhood. Alicia was over the moon.