To most Kansans, the bright lights of Broadway might seem as far away as the land of Oz. Not so for students of the Miller-Marley School of Dance and Voice in Overland Park, KS. Over the past four decades, many of them have gone on to professional careers on the Great White Way, as well as in dance, television, community theater and film. For them, there really is no place like home.
The credit is due to Shirley Marley, who, from an upbringing on an Iowa farm with an outhouse and no electricity, has created a dance studio where quality training and a strong sense of family have translated into unparalleled success. “We believe in creating triple threats—those who can dance, sing and act,” she says.
Marley started studying dance at age 6 in Corydon, IA. In the late 1950s, her family moved to Kansas City, where she began teaching at the Virginia Loncar School of Dance as a high school student. A few years later, Marley inherited the school when Loncar moved to Chicago. In 1963, after marrying Johnny Miller, Marley renamed the school the Miller-Marley School of Dance.
Marley and the school have since become fixtures in the Kansas City community. She has held positions as children’s choreographer at the local Starlight Theatre and as director of the Chiefettes, the dance team for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. At the same time, her school has grown, garnering a reputation for turning out Broadway dancers from the likes of Cheryl Clark (A Chorus Line, Pippin, Chicago) and Lisa Brown (42nd Street, Pal Joey, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) to current performers Marty Thomas (Xanadu, The Secret Garden, Wicked), Renée Feder (Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Anything Goes) and Shannon Durig, who currently stars as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray.
Other alumni have found success in different areas, including former Paul Taylor Dance Company dancer Francie Huber, film actress Sandahl Bergman and television host Constance Ramos. Fourteen former students have also opened their own dance schools in the Kansas City area. In short, Miller-Marley dancers are just about everywhere. As Durig recalls, “Someone asked me at an audition if I was from ‘that school in Kansas.’ When I said yes, they replied, ‘Who are you people and why are there so many of you here?’”
The answer can be found in an unassuming suburban strip mall where Marley’s school has been located for the past 22 years. There, the 16-member faculty, many of whom have been with the school for 20 years or more, teach classes for students ages 3 through adult in ballet, pointe, jazz, lyrical, tap, hip hop, Pilates, voice and piano. Former students also offer regular master classes on such topics as auditioning and what it takes to land a job.
With an eye toward developing students as performers, the school has five performing groups for children ages 6 and up, along with two competition teams. Students also make regular trips to New York City’s Broadway Dance Center and other training facilities and perform in an annual recital or themed production. “Our philosophy is one of inclusiveness,” says School Director Brian McGinness, who has been with Miller-Marley for 27 years. “Regardless of body type and talent level, we are there for every student who walks through our door.”
While Marley and McGinness are quick to attribute the school’s success to their students’ talent and hard work, they also cite the following strategies:
n Offer an abundance of class levels: Marley feels that having more than a dozen class levels helps her and the faculty better place students according to ability, thus helping them learn faster and move up more quickly.
Stay fresh with ongoing teacher training: Marley and her staff annually attend training sessions and conventions in NYC, Los Angeles and St. Louis. “We try to keep up on the latest techniques and trends,” she says. “We never think that we know it all. The advice I give the kids is, ‘When I tell you something, I may change my mind tomorrow when I learn something else.’”
Foster a well-rounded education: According to McGinness, the school encourages students to get involved in drama classes, school plays and other performing opportunities apart from Miller-Marley. The idea is that the benefits of these outside experiences will come back to the school 10-fold through students’ passion and dedication toward training.
Set good examples: “All of my students have seen others from the studio who have gone on and done things,” says Marley. “They know they can do the same because they have seen so many who have. They are training at the same place and learning the same things the others did.”
In the end, Marley feels that helping students believe in themselves is the most important lesson she can pass on. “Shirley put the belief in us that we can do anything we put our minds to,” attests Durig. “When we go on auditions, we know we have everything we need to succeed.”
As for the 72-year-old Marley, being in the studio every day is what gives her life purpose. “I have the best job in the world and am working with the best people in the world,” she says. “I have always felt that your students should be better than you. I want Miller-Marley to be a place where that goal is carried on long after I’m gone.” DT
Steve Sucato is a dancer-turned-writer/critic based in Erie, PA. He writes regularly for several newspapers.