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West African dance and hip-hop play a key role in a revamped Juilliard track

Alicia Graf Mack, dean and director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division (center), speaks with fourth-year dance students Kailei Sin (left) and Nyoka Wotorson (right) in between classes.
Tsering Bista/NPR
Alicia Graf Mack, dean and director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division (center), speaks with fourth-year dance students Kailei Sin (left) and Nyoka Wotorson (right) in between classes.

Nyoka Wotorson has been dancing as far back as she can remember. But it wasn't until she got accepted into The Juilliard School's small but mighty Dance Division, and training in its revamped program, that she realized her passion could be a career.

"It took me a second to realize that this is something that I can do and make money and travel the world doing," the 22-year-old told NPR's Michel Martin during a break between classes. "I just woke up from this dream reality that you have to be more than just an artist, when really to be an artist you have to be such a multifaceted human being that even if I stopped dancing today, I know because of dance, I would have the wherewithal and the drive to do whatever else I want."

Students dance in an advanced Allegro class taught by instructor Jeff Edwards.
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Tsering Bista/NPR
Students dance in an advanced Allegro class taught by instructor Jeff Edwards.

Behind the transformative aspect of her four years at one of the world's most elite conservatories, lies the relentless drive of another dancer, Alicia Graf Mack.

In 2018, she became the prestigious New York conservatory's first woman of color to head the dance program — and the youngest person to do so. Graf Mack, 45, is shaking up what is taught and how to make art dance more relevant than ever.

"Being a tall Black woman in ballet, I have always been sort of the unicorn or the standout person. And so it felt right," said Graf Mack, who at 17 became a breakout star with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Mack's illustrious career also saw her perform with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Beyoncé and John Legend. But injuries caused by a rheumatic disease ultimately forced her to leave the stage, and she then turned her focus on arts education.

After suffering from injuries early on in her dance career, Graf Mack pivoted to arts education. "It really was education that saved me," she told NPR. "It was the idea that I could be more than one thing."
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Tsering Bista/NPR
After suffering from injuries early on in her dance career, Graf Mack pivoted to arts education. "It really was education that saved me," she told NPR. "It was the idea that I could be more than one thing."

Innovation at heart

Juilliard's dance program has been innovative from its start in 1951. Founding director Martha Hill trained students in both ballet and modern dance, an unusual approach at a time when the two were considered practically opposite disciplines. She set new standards that made Juilliard a beacon of the world's finest dance training. She also had dancers collaborate with their music program peers and attracted luminaries as teachers, from Martha Graham to José Limón and Antony Tudor.

Graf Mack now requires students to take hip-hop and West African dance. The young apprentices have more freedom to choose the techniques that interest them, regardless of gender or body type.

Students practice the Cunningham technique, developed by 20th century dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Jean Freebury, who teaches the course at Juilliard, danced with the Merce Cunningham Company for nearly a decade.
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Tsering Bista/NPR
Students practice the Cunningham technique, developed by 20th century dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Jean Freebury, who teaches the course at Juilliard, danced with the Merce Cunningham Company for nearly a decade.

Men can take pointe classes, be they aspiring Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo drag troupe members or simply exploring how to use their bodies in different ways. Women can learn the kinds of jumps and turns once reserved for men. Dancers are even encouraged to take a vocal arts class.

"I want them to be as versatile as they can so that they have longevity in their careers. And you can start with a ballet company or on Broadway," said Graf Mack. "They can be well versed in many different languages of dance, but if they don't understand how they can all be integrated and work together, then we have, you know, an issue."

Students are encouraged to come as they are, and that even extends to what they wear to class. Out with the tights and tutus, in with polo shirts, leggings, baggy pants and the universal attire of college students everywhere — school sweatshirts.

Graf Mack, a former dancer, watches a class from the sidelines.
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Tsering Bista/NPR
Graf Mack, a former dancer, watches a class from the sidelines.

"Your unique qualities are they want to see those sides of you when it comes to attire. Specifically, everyone here dresses like themselves 100% of the time," Wotorson said.

'Sense of urgency'

Graf Mack highlighted the "sense of urgency" in working with college students who are about to launch their careers.

"We can also look toward the field and say, 'What is currently the state of the field and how can we shift and change that field?'" she said.

Juilliard students have long joined the ranks of top dance companies around the world. The school says that all students from the class of 2023 graduated with jobs at companies from the Mark Morris Group to the Met Opera Ballet and Ballet Zurich. Graf Mack said she hopes that more Juilliard dancers will become company directors.

The exterior of the Juilliard School in Midtown Manhattan.
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Tsering Bista/NPR
The exterior of the Juilliard School in Midtown Manhattan.

Only up to 24 dance students get accepted into Juilliard each year, for a dance division that totals around 80 students across the four-year program. An elite education like this one in the fine and performing arts can be prohibitively expensive in the United States, which provides little government support to the sector compared to European countries.

The estimated budget for a first-time, first-year Juilliard student next school year is $86,582, of which $54,400 alone accounts for tuition. That amount includes living expenses, but doesn't account for any scholarships or financial aid. The school says more than 90% of its students have received some form of aid in recent years, with the average student paying less than half the cost of tuition.

Juilliard has set a goal to prioritize affordability and to become more tuition-free. Starting in the 2024-2025 academic year, enrolled students can attend for free a graduate acting program. Juilliard Drama alumni include Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Adam Driver, Samira Wiley and Robin Williams. And the school recently raised $10 million for student scholarships through a partnership with the Jerome L. Greene Foundation.

Graf Mack poses for a portrait in a Juilliard dance studio.
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Tsering Bista/NPR
Graf Mack poses for a portrait in a Juilliard dance studio.

"It's so important so that the dancers, the musicians and drama students can concentrate on their art form and not on how am I going to eat and I have to land a job coming out of school immediately so I can just survive in my craft," Graf Mack said. "It took a village to get me to become a professional dancer. For most dancers, it takes at least ten years of training before they can get into a college for four more years of training and school in higher education."

Being part of history

Wotorson, the fourth-year student, is a Greene fellow. She's headed to the Netherlands this summer after landing a contract with Scapino Ballet Rotterdam. Before all that, she's performing March 27-30 in Juilliard's spring showcase.

The Spring Dances will feature repertory work by Kyle Abraham and another from a collaboration between Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber. The final piece is Map by Chinese-American painter and choreographer Shen Wei, set to composer alum Steve Reich's The Desert Music, a sprawling, pulsating chorale performed by the Juilliard Orchestra and guest vocalists. Although Juilliard has had Asian choreographers create new work in recent years, this is the first time an Asian choreographer's existing repertoire work has been performed at the school in more than 20 years.

"It's really cool to be a part of that kind of history here," said Kailei Sin, who will join Wotorson and fellow students on stage. "Something that I've learned here and I think is super valuable for dancers anywhere is to have somebody that looks like you leading a space, being at the front of the room."

The broadcast version of this story was produced by Ana Perez. The digital version was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin is a host of Morning Edition. Previously, she was the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she drew on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member stations.
Olivia Hampton
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ana Perez
Ana Perez is an associate producer for Morning Edition. She produces and creates content for broadcast and digital for the program.