Bringing emotionally driven dance to Broadway and American themes to ballet 

De Mille in her most famous role: the Cowgirl in Rodeo

Famous for choreographing Oklahoma!, Carousel and Brigadoon, Agnes de Mille forever changed the face of Broadway dance. She was the first to create movement that added to the story’s emotional impact, rather than simply inserting standard chorus-girl routines between each scene, as was the convention at the time. De Mille’s movement actually helped move the plot along.

But none of de Mille’s success came easily, despite her show-biz lineage: Her father, William de Mille, was a famous playwright, and her uncle was none other than big-shot Hollywood producer Cecil B. de Mille. When de Mille moved with her family from New York to Hollywood as a young teenager, she began taking ballet classes with former Ballet Russes dancer Theodore Kosloff. After witnessing performances by Anna Pavlova and Ruth St. Denis, de Mille knew she wanted to be a dancer.

Repeatedly told that her body type was all wrong for dance—de Mille was short and voluptuous—she instead earned her English degree at the University of California at Los Angeles, while choreographing solos for student productions on the side. From 1928 to 1936, de Mille toured the U.S. and Europe as a soloist, portraying characters like a tomboyish cowgirl (who would later appear in her most well-known piece, Rodeo). Though she did well with the critics, de Mille struggled to find an audience. Once back in the U.S., she created two ballets for the newly formed American Ballet Theatre but didn’t find real success until she got the opportunity to choreograph a work for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. De Mille’s Rodeo—based on her earlier tomboy cowgirl solo—premiered in 1942 in New York City. De Mille danced the female lead at age 37 and took 22 curtain calls. ABT added Rodeo to its repertory in 1950, and it has remained a crowd-pleaser ever since.

Impressed with her Rodeo success, Broadway songwriting team Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers asked de Mille to choreograph their newest musical, Oklahoma!, which was also about Western country life. Her work on the musical revolutionized Broadway dance: Instead of having pretty chorus girls strut around onstage, de Mille weaved her choreography into the plot. Her “dream ballet” for the musical’s heroine gave the audience a glimpse inside her difficult decision to choose between two suitors. Oklahoma! ran for five seasons on Broadway and paved the way for de Mille’s future Broadway hits, including Carousel and Brigadoon.

Her Broadway successes didn’t translate to the concert dance scene, however. When she founded the Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre in the 1950s to tour her works nationally, her company received poor reviews and lost money. She refocused her efforts and published multiple autobiographies (like Dance to the Piper, 1952), gave lecture-demonstrations on television and wrote a biography of Martha Graham (Martha, 1991). Soon after forming a new dance group in the 1970s—Heritage Dance Theater, composed of University of North Carolina School of the Arts students—de Mille suffered a debilitating stroke. Ever determined, she continued directing from a wheelchair until her death at age 88. DT

Fun Facts

A young Leonard Bernstein was fired from de Mille’s ballet classes as accompanist for not being able to keep time. Bernstein would go on to become one of the world’s greatest composers and conductors.When hired to choreograph Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, de Mille demanded—and was granted—absolute control over the hiring of the dancers, a previously unheard-of request.

The Work

Rodeo (1942) Dancing the lead female role of the Cowgirl who chooses between the arrogant Head Wrangler of her dreams and a lovable cowboy, de Mille received 22 curtain calls.

Oklahoma! (1943) “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” is a dream ballet that managed to both forward the plot and reveal the heroine’s inner thoughts and emotions. After Oklahoma!, the standard Broadway kickline all but disappeared.

Brigadoon (1947) When choreographing this musical about two young American men who discover a magical, ancient Scottish city, de Mille studied Scottish folk dances for authenticity. Her movement included a lively Highland Fling and a ceremonial sword dance.

ABT’s Marian Butler as the Cowgirl in Rodeo

The Legacy Lives On 

De Mille’s work in musical theater elevated dance from mere showy entertainment to an integral part of the story that helped further the plot. She brought American themes and folk dance styles to classical ballet, and her Rodeo remains a popular piece in American Ballet Theatre’s repertory.






“Agnes de Mille: A dancer, choreographer and writer who helped shape American dance,” by Betty Rowen, Dance Teacher, October 2005.

Agnes de Mille: Choreographer, by Margaret Speaker-Yuan, Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.


Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”:


Photo (top) by Maurice Seymour, courtesy of ABT; by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of ABT

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Mitchell Button, courtesy of the artist

Dusty Button prefers music with a range. "There needs to be a beginning, a climax and a strong ending. Like a movie," she says. The award-winning dancer, who joined American Ballet Theatre's second company, ABT II, at 18, has always been drawn to lyric-free tracks filled with dynamic phrasing, rhythms and composition. "Whether it's the violin, piano or cello, instrumental music gives me more inspiration. I want the dancers and the audience to feel something new," she adds.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

When the news broke that Prince George, currently third in line for the British throne, would be continuing ballet classes as part of his school curriculum this year, we were as excited as anyone. (OK, maybe more excited.)

This was not, it seems, a sentiment shared by "Good Morning America" host Lara Spencer.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.


Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox