Brooklyn Mack could easily be on a list of some of the top successful homegrown Midlands professional athletes. An Elgin native, Mack began training in ballet at age 12 with world-renowned dancer and instructor Radenko Pavlovich at Columbia Classical Ballet.
Today, Mack is known worldwide and is a principal dancer with the Washington Ballet Company. In 2012, he became the first African-American man to win gold at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria.
And it all started with Mack negotiating with his mom that he would learn ballet if she would let him try out for football.
Mack will appear with Misty Copeland on March 15 at a fundraising luncheon for Columbia Classical Ballet and Columbia City Ballet.
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What was it like to grow up in Elgin?
Mack: Peaceful. It’s a really small town. I mean we still only have one traffic light even today. It was a very different time. Everyone knew everyone. You couldn’t have a kid getting into trouble without someone telling your mom because everyone knew your mom. It was nice, you know. It was a nice feeling growing up there.
What are your most vivid memories of living here, growing up here?
Mack: I would say just the most vivid memories are of my mom and how hard she worked with two, sometimes three jobs and putting herself through school and taking care of all of us kids – that’s a lot of my memories. Of course later ballet came in and that was a big part of my life.
You were the youngest of four and your mom was a single mom?
Mack: That’s right.
How difficult was it to be a 12-year-old boy growing up here in the South, telling people you were a ballet dancer?
Mack: I was pretty lucky at least concerning my peers. I think a lot of that was due to the fact that I started a little bit later as far as ballet goes. Also the fact that growing up where I grew up, it was pretty small and I already knew everybody. I already had a reputation of being really tough before I started ballet. I think that kept some of the ridicule at bay. ... But definitely, I mean, there was still definitely a kind of a sense of bewilderment and maybe surprise with some folks – I could easily speculate what people were thinking when I told them, ‘I do dance, I do ballet’ just by their facial expressions. Long before I ever took ballet I was always hearing that it’s for girls, it’s for sissies so I already knew that was going to be people’s mindset. Before I got into it I already decided that I’m not going worry about what anybody thinks, because I am who I am.
Your mom was a dancer, right? Do you think you got some talent from her?
Mack: I think she gave me a little bit, but honestly, I would joke with her that she was stingy with the genes because she has a much better body in terms of ballet aesthetics than I do. She didn’t pass along her feet, which are great for ballet, or her legs either. What she gave me was her strong will and passion and a good upbringing, and that counts for a lot.
Do you remember the first time you met Radenko?
Mack: Yes, of course. It was the first time my mom brought me to his studio after I approached her with my proposition to learn ballet so that I could try out for football. A few weeks after that she brought me in. She went around searching for what she thought was the best school and she brought me to Radenko’s. I can never forget that day. It was one of those embarrassing mom moments – one of the many that I can remember. She brought me into his ballet school and Radenko came out and said, “Can I help you?” and she said “Yes, I want you to consider my son for a scholarship.” And he says, “We don’t give scholarships,” and she says, “Well you haven’t seen my son.” And I looked at her like, “What are you talking about?” I feel like she’s talking me up, and how am I going to back it up when I had never been in a studio and put on a ballet shoe or anything? He was as shocked and taken aback as I was, and I guess for that reason, he said, “All right, I’ll take a look at him at least.” And then we went in the studio. I had some basketball shorts and some socks, and he gave me a bar and worked with me for maybe like 20 minutes or so. Then he took me back out to my mom, and I remember him saying that my legs were OK, that my flexibility was moderate but that I had to work on that a lot and that my feet were terrible – and I remember thinking looking down at my feet like, “What’s wrong with my feet? What does that even mean?”
After, he said that he told my mom that if I wanted to come on scholarship that I’d have to come six days a week and my mom looked at me like, “Well, what do you want to do?” and I don’t know what compelled me to say yes to that, but I did. I guess football was enough of a motivator. And I thought I would be able to master it quickly because pretty much anything I’d ever done that I put my mind to, I’d always excelled at, especially athletically.
So you were pretty competitive?
Mack: Yes, oh my gosh yes. Very much so.
How did Radenko prepare you for your life today?
Mack: Well, I have to say initially, even though he agreed to the deal, I could tell he didn’t like me much, and I wouldn’t really get much attention from him for the first half a year or so. Gradually, gradually, he would give me a correction here, a correction there, more and more. Then, after the first recital, he came on stage and he grabbed the mic, and he announced to everyone that I did a really amazing job and that he would be giving me a scholarship for the next year. It was around that time that was really the turning point. I think I shocked him quite a bit with my work ethic and my tenacity even though I didn’t necessarily have the best natural ability, but I think that yeah, my fortitude and tenacity won him over. After about a year, he really opened up quite a bit more and actually started focusing on me more and giving me more attention and correction. He’s a very, very good teacher. Even to this day, I still come home and train with him if I have something coming up because I value his input incredibly because he’s one of the best out there. ... I don’ know how to say it really. He became more of a father figure and he really helped me tremendously.
What was your reaction when you heard about the flooding here – not just the flooding of your hometown but also of your dance school?
Mack: I felt really, really bad for Radenko, because I had known for at least the last five or six years he had been wanting to renovate the studio and put in new floors and put in some walls to make more space for the studio because it was really too small. Just this summer, I think in August, he finally was able to renovate and put in new floors, and it was looking great, and not a month and a half later, the flood hit, and he had just done everything to get it to the way he finally wanted it, and it was all destroyed. It was really, really devastating. Of course that can’t help but affect me as well because I care for the company and of course for Radenko. Even more than the studio, just the city of Columbia, period, that’s home and I really was feeling for everyone going through this disaster – losing their homes and losing things that they’ve worked so hard for.
What do you hope comes out of the event on March 15?
Mack: Of course we hope to raise money toward rebuilding and everything but I also hope that it can just be a forum and continue to shed light on the city and on the ballet company as well, but just to let people know that people are still reeling from this event and that if people can help that it’s still very much needed and welcomed. Aside from that, Radenko’s a well-kept beautiful secret, but he shouldn’t be. I hope to shed a bit of light on him, too, so that people come and can train with him and work with him and gather up some of his vast ballet knowledge as I have and become some of the next generation to pass it along.
What do you have coming up next?
Mack: Next is “Hamlet,” “Carmina Burana” and (George) Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” and then “Bowie & Queen.” I’m very much looking forward to “Theme and Variations” – it’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’m also really looking forward to “Bowie & Queen” since we announced that last April, and now with the passing of (David) Bowie, I feel like it’s a perfect tribute.
I’m also going to be performing at the Palace Garnier in Paris this June as a guest principal with the English National Ballet. I’m very much looking forward to that.
You’ll also be seeing Misty Copeland at the Columbia event March 15. What will that be like? You two recently performed together, right?
Mack: Yeah, yeah, we danced together last year for” Swan Lake” and it was an historic event in that it was the first time that two African-Americans were performing the lead roles in Swan Lake for a major ballet company. This is going to be the first time I’ve seen her since then. It will be great to see here again.
Do you ever see yourself moving back to Columbia one day?
Mack: I’m really, really not sure, but it’s always going to be home to me. I guess there’s a lot of factors to think about and to figure out. But I’ll always come back and I’ll always do whatever I can for my city.