When Alicia Graf first enrolled at GS, her life as a dancer was over. Or at least for Alicia, who began taking dance classes while still in diapers, it felt that way. From the beginning she was a distinctive presence on stage, not only because of her impressive ability but also because of her statuesque height and her biracial ethnicity, both unusual characteristics for a ballerina. In 1996, at the age of 17, she moved from her family’s home in suburban Maryland to New York to make her professional debut with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she worked with company founder Arthur Mitchell. The following year, she danced the lead in George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son,” in a performance that Anna Kisselgoff, then-chief dance critic of the New York Times, called “extraordinary.” But in 1999 she sustained an injury, and persistent swelling in her right knee and ankle kept her from working.
After two surgeries she was barely able to walk because the muscles in her leg had atrophied so severely. After being diagnosed with reactive arthritis and with her career seemingly over, Graf applied to GS and decided to major in history “to gain a broad knowledge of the world and human motivation,” she later said. She joined the Columbia Black Students Organization and started a performing-arts program for a school in the Bronx, while also interning with Essence magazine and J.P. Morgan. She wrote her thesis on the history of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, examining discrimination in classical ballet as well as the financing behind nonprofit organizations. Her thesis adviser, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History Eric Foner, said that she “discussed the company’s history in nuance. No one had really written this piece of history before.”
Graf also served as associate director for a campus praise dancing group, and even danced a little after completing her physical therapy regimen. But, after graduating magna cum laude in 2003, she planned to enter investment banking—until she saw a performance by her old company and made “a spur of the moment decision,” she said, asking to rejoin the troupe. A Times review noted that she came back “an even more authoritative artist.” When the Dance Theatre of Harlem disbanded in 2004, she joined the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, transitioning from ballet to modern dance. Her first performance for Alvin Ailey, in Judith Jamison’s “Reminiscin’,” was “one of the instant star turns,” wrote Times dance critic John Rockwell. Since joining Alvin Ailey she has toured Europe, Asia, and most recently North America; in her spare time, she has contributed to Dance magazine and Pointe magazine. In 2007, Smithsonian magazine named her one of the 37 Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences.
New York Times profile (2005): http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/22/arts/dance/22graf.html
Columbia Magazine profile (2006): http://www.columbia.edu/cu/alumni/Magazine/Fall2006/graf.html