When Alicia Graf Mack leaps through the air onstage, her awe-inspiring lightness is proof that the human body can do remarkable things. But behind the scenes, Mack, 34, has spent the past 15 years struggling with physical limitations: She suffers from a type of arthritic disease that was so painful, it could have ended her career. Today, as a lead dancer for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, she shares the lessons that helped her get back in step.

Stay Positive, No Matter What

In 1999, I was rehearsing with the Dance Theatre of Harlem for a show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., when my knee swelled to the size of a melon. I wasn't in a great deal of pain, so I strapped on my pointe shoes and continued to practice. The next day, I went to a doctor to get the excess fluid drained and returned to rehearsal; then, a couple of weeks later, my knee blew up again. This recurred three more times and I developed excruciating pain in many of my joints. Not only was I unable to dance—I could barely walk. An MRI showed a cartilage tear, so I had surgery, but that didn't resolve the issue. I went to at least 15 doctors, who tested me for everything from Lyme disease to cancer and found nothing. But I never gave up hope that someone would solve the puzzle. In the end, it was my cousin, a rheumatologist in California, who discovered that I carried a gene associated with a rheumatic disease known as spondyloarthritis. It's a condition that would never have shown up in routine blood work.

Listen to Your Body

I had to go through a second knee surgery and foot reconstruction to repair the damage I'd done from dancing through the pain. After a few years' recovery, I had the opportunity to audition for and join Ailey in 2005. I thought my life was finally back on track, but in reality I was working against myself. I was pushing my body too hard. Many of my symptoms returned, and I even developed inflammation of the eyes, which made it difficult to see under the bright lights of the stage. I was forced to quit dancing again for several years. Now that I'm back, I'm more tuned in to what my body is telling me and sometimes that means giving it a rest.

Believe in the Power of Diet

To keep my pain in check, I was on some pretty strong meds. One was so potent that it made my hair fall out in clumps! I wanted to stop taking such heavy drugs, so I consulted an alternative medicine healer. He tested me for food allergies and discovered that I was sensitive to gluten and dairy products, both of which can cause inflammation. Giving them up wasn't easy—I love pizza!—but within two months, I could feel less stiffness and achiness in my joints. I'd never felt so comfortable in my body. These days I stick to good whole foods like legumes, quinoa and lots of fruits and vegetables. I truly believe that overhauling my diet helped me become well enough to return to Ailey. I have flare-ups occasionally, but I'm still dancing—which makes every day feel like a gift.

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