With an approach to choreography that has been dubbed “go-for-broke" and “eclectic," by The New York Times, Mia Michaels—perhaps best known for her recurring role as a judge and choreographer on Fox TV's runaway hit “So You Think You Can Dance"—has put her own indelible stamp on the dance world while navigating its many paths. Moving at lightning pace between studio instruction and choreography for concert dance, commercial clients and live theatrical shows, Michaels has shown an enviable aptitude for innovation, adaptation and, most notably, reinvention.

A Family Affair

Dance has been at the center of Michaels' life. Her father, Joe, owned Joe Michaels Miami Dance Center in Miami, where Michaels studied ballet, tap and jazz throughout her childhood. “My dad was the kind of teacher who made everyone fall in love with dance," she says. “He nurtured my love for it and made me see it as a lifestyle."

Growing up, Michaels' daily ritual entailed heading to the studio directly after school and taking class until about 10 pm, after which her father would make a “massive Italian meal." At her private Catholic school, Michaels was known to give the other students singing and dancing lessons during lunch breaks. Friday nights were also an all-dance affair, as Michaels often orchestrated backyard performances with neighborhood children. “Cooking and dancing and celebrating life is what I grew up doing," she remembers fondly. “From an early time, I was consistently teaching and creating."

Once Michaels and her older sister Dana were teenagers, they made the transition from students to teachers at their father's school, Mia as a jazz instructor and Dana teaching tap. Michaels soon set her sights on becoming a professional ballerina, studying at the Miami Conservatory. “I was a full-out bunhead," says Michaels, laughing. “[But] my body was too thick to ever really be a ballerina; many teachers told me it would never happen." So the young dancer refocused her energies on modern dance, studying at what is now the New World School of the Arts.

By the early 1990s, Michaels had taken on a bigger role at the family studio and was essentially running it with her sister. Yet she was ready for a new challenge and, like many dancers, decided to follow her dreams to New York City. Alhough “We'd built amazing dancers [at the studio], and it was a machine for creating great artists," she recalls. “But I decided that the studio environment wasn't enough for me; I needed to pursue more."

NYC wasn't necessarily ready for Michaels—it took her three tries in the Big Apple before her career started to click. “I would try to get teaching jobs, and nobody cared. People would be like, 'Who are you?'" she remembers.

A failed attempt to snag a teaching gig at Broadway Dance Center led Michaels to take a job at the nearby Sansha shop, in hopes of staying connected to the dance community. With sinking spirits, she shuttled between Miami and NYC, unsure where the future would lead. But she continued to teach sporadically in Miami, she managed to find steady work on the convention circuit, where finally, as fate would have it, she caught the eye of Frank Hatchett, who helped her land a summer teaching job at BDC and convinced her to stay in NYC. “From that point on, my classes grew and exploded," she says of her permanent move to NYC in 1997.

Why have her classes always struck such a resounding chord with students? “My energy and way of movement pushes them to think differently," Michaels says. “It pushes them to a place that is a little bit uncomfortable, which is what I experience every time I go into the studio. It's so easy for great technical dancers to hide behind steps. I try to open up and free them."

Michaels' gift for choreography grew along with her reputation as a teacher. In 1998, Michaels founded RAW—Reality At Work—an eight-member modern dance company, which went on to tour Korea and perform at Amsterdam's International Dance Festival and Chicago's Jazz Dance World Congress. (The company disbanded in 2001.)

Raw & Untapped

“RAW was a pinnacle point for me, and put me on the map as a choreographer." To prepare for their first season at New York's prestigious and avant-garde performance venue P.S. 122, Michaels and her dancers holed up in the studio for three months. Through the catharsis of such constant creation, Michaels says that it became “clear who I was as an artist."

The commercial dance world sat up and took notice. She landed a flurry of choreography jobs, including Prince's concert tour in 2000 and segments of Madonna's Drowned World Tour in 2001. Music videos for Ricky Martin, SHeDAISY, Gloria Estefan and Jon Secada soon followed these successful concert tour gigs.

One of Michaels' most high-profile jobs came her way in 2002. Up against thousands of other choreographers from around the world, Michaels was selected to spearhead Celine Dion's live show, A New Day…, at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. To stage the show's spectacular dance sequences, Michaels spent a year in rehearsals, splitting her time between Director Franco Dragone's home base in Belgium and Las Vegas. Now three years old and going strong, the 50-dancer show has garnered her a 2004 Emmy nomination and considerable critical acclaim.

“Getting a taste of that world was amazing," says Michaels, who adds that she enjoys helping artists and dancers find their own unique voices as performers. “It's about collaboration; you have to leave room for their voice because they are special. If an artist or dancer leaves the room [and is] the same person who walked in, it was a waste of time. It's all about growth."

Striking the Right Balance

Michaels brings this same philosophy to “So You Think You Can Dance," where, for the past two years, she has earned a reputation as one of the show's toughest judges. Yet Michaels says her brutal honesty is just a reflection of her high expectations of herself and the dancers with whom she surrounds herself.

“When I look at my art and my craft, I don't [either] lightly," she says. “On the show, I don't sugarcoat anything. Some people badmouth me and call me hardcore, but I wouldn't be where I am as a choreographer if I thought all the dancers who came through were wonderful."

On the show, the young hopefuls not only perform and receive feedback from the judges, but also take classes and learn choreography from Michaels and her cohorts, which include Brian Friedman and Dan Karaty. As the season progresses, the dancers are eliminated by public vote until just one is left standing. “It's such a physical and emotional journey," says Michaels. “It's so brave of them to put it out on national television. In a sense, it makes me want to nurture and mother them."

So how does Michaels temper her no-holds-barred façade with her more nurturing side? “There are times when you have to be a teacher, and there are times when you have to be a nurturer," she says. “It's like the yin and yang, water and metal. Finding the balance between freedom and structure is very important.

“As a teacher, the environment you create has to feel safe and non-judgmental," she continues. “No one will allow their bodies to be free if they feel like they are being laughed at or scrutinized. It's about learning how to strap on your wings and go! When it's time to perform the choreography, then it's about working to the highest capacity."

Perfection & Imperfection

A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Michaels admits her toughest criticisms may be directed inward. Despite a lengthy list of enviable choreography credits and distinguished teaching positions—at BDC and BDC's The Pulse, Alvin Ailey Dance Center, L.A.'s EDGE Performing Arts Center and the International Dance Festival of Italy, to name a few—Michaels still feels she has barely scratched the surface.


“No matter what I've accomplished, it's never good enough," she says. “If I repeat a step, or continue in the same direction, or don't feel that I'm exploring, I can be really hard on myself."

The intense inner monologue is evident when she teaches class. Often, she says, teaching can be a draining yet exhilarating spiritual experience.

“When you step out of the way and allow something more divine to create through you, it seizes your instrument," she says. “When I teach, I put my whole self into it. It might take days for me to explore what I want to share that week. I look at it as all or nothing."

Yet mixed into Michaels' type-A approach is a deep appreciation for imperfection. She encourages students and professionals to look within themselves, to find beauty in their flaws, and to reflect these discoveries in their movement. “When dancers just do steps, it's too perfect," she laments. “I want dancers to show who they are as individuals, to get a little dirty. It's about taking risks to find out who you are."

On the heels of the second season of “So You Think You Can Dance" and her choreography work earlier this year on Cirque de Soleil's newest show, Delirium, Michaels is busy plotting her future, which she hopes will include a major Broadway production. In July, she had the opportunity to show off a more traditional theatrical side, choreographing Hello Dolly! for the Papermill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey.

Michaels hopes future projects will be just as unpredictable. As someone whose creative process is entirely instinctual, it's unlikely that she will ever be accused of stale or tired ideas. “My choreography comes from what I'm experiencing in my own life, and it awakens through certain feelings, rhythms or body lines," she says. “You can't predict when something special will happen. You just have to be ready for it."

The Conversation
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When it comes to running a thriving dance studio, Cindy Clough knows what she's talking about. As executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner for more than four decades, she's all too aware of the unique challenges the job presents, from teaching to scheduling to managing employees and clients.

Here, Clough shares her best advice for new studio owners, and the answers to some common questions that come up when you're getting started.

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Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. The list goes on—and you have to decide not only what type of presence you'll have on each platform, but also whether you and your faculty will network with students and family members. How can you set boundaries for yourself and your faculty on social media?

The easiest option may be to prohibit these interactions entirely. At the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, staff and faculty may not "friend" or otherwise connect with current students or those under the age of 18 on social media, explains Gordon Wright, Harid's executive vice president and director.

At the Dance Zone in Henderson, Nevada, the handbook states that social media should be handled "in a professional manner." Owner Jami Artiga encourages students and faculty to share photos and tag the studio, but prefers not to "friend" kids from her personal account. "Of course, my son dances at the studio, and we have teachers with kids who go here, so sometimes the line gets blurry," she says.

Robin Dawn Ryan of the Robin Dawn Academy in Cape Coral, FL, also has a few students on her Facebook friend list, "but I don't put a lot about my personal life on the site," she says. She uses the platform more to keep track of what dancers and their parents are posting about the studio. "If they put up something they shouldn't," she says, whether that's a bullying post or an unflattering image, "I'll ask them to take it down."

Ryan tends to keep her social-media shout-outs generic: "So proud of this year's graduates!" and "Our dancers looked beautiful at prom!" That way, she can show support without spending hours online or worrying about missing any one student's achievement.

Dancer Health
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When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.

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Studio Owners
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Many a studio owner might agree that the idea of maternity leave is laughable. "So many people say, 'I was back after two weeks—we had a competition,'" says Meagan Ziebarth, a former owner who sold her studio two years ago. "If that works for you, and you feel great, wonderful. But I feel passionately that having a baby is one of the most transformational life events, and you don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself and accept that that's the norm."

So how can you take the maternity leave you want and make sure your studio doesn't run itself into the ground? We asked three who did it for their best advice—including what they wish they'd done differently.

Be OK With Crazy

Suzana Stankovic and Natalia.

Suzana Stankovic
Wild Heart Performing Arts Studio
Astoria, New York
Enrollment: 500 (drop-in)
2 years in business

Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.

For the first two months after her baby was born, Stankovic recovered (she'd had a C-section). She held a soft opening in mid-November (2 1/2 months postdelivery) for existing students and officially opened her studio—with a drop-in class format—to the public the following January (4 months postdelivery).

  • Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
  • Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
  • Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
  • Be OK with crazy. "I would plan my lesson and do my combos in the shower," she says. "On my way to the studio, I'd finish up my grand allégro in my head. I'd send e-mails in the middle of changing her diaper—I'd write two sentences, change the diaper, write two more, then hit send." The result of so much multitasking? "I realized, 'Wow, I can do so much more than I thought I could,'" says Stankovic. "I'm ready for anything."
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International performer Joy Womack balances flexibility and strength to maintain her turnout. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Turnout is one of the defining characteristics of classical ballet and the foundation of your technique, but the deceptively simple concept of external rotation can be hard to execute. For those born with hip joints that don't naturally make a tight fifth position, it's tempting to take shortcuts in the quest for more rotation, but you'll end up with weaker technique and a higher risk of injury. We asked top teachers and physical therapists to break down the meaning of turnout and offer safe ways to maximize your range.

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In our not-so-humble opinion, dancers and dogs should rule the world. So, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to hear that we are positively obsessed with all things that are dog and dance at the same time. Namely, puppies dressed up in tutus. OMG—so cute!

We couldn't keep our knowledge of this perfect combination of dreaminess to ourselves. So we decided to share with you some tutu-wearing dogs from Instagram that we will never get over.

You're welcome!

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As a hula instructor at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Hawaii native Kaina Quenga is committed to sharing the traditional dances and culture of Polynesia with the people of the Big Apple. Through training with famed kuma hula (master teacher) Johnny Lum Ho of Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, Quenga developed a respect for and understanding of the artform that has carried her through the nearly 20 years of her professional career.

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Carol Channing in the original 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! Photo by Eileen Darby, courtesy of DM Archives

The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.

Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.

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Here at Dance Media, we think everyone's list of New Year's resolutions should include reading more 💁♀️. And aside from reading Dance Teacher magazine (which should, of course, be a resolution in and of itself), we recommend some seriously wonderful dancer memoirs.

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Share your favorite dancer memoirs in our comment section! We can't wait to hear what you're reading!

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When it comes to Broadway, Becca Petersen does it all. Not only is she a swing learning multiple roles for Mean Girls on Broadway as well as understudy for the principal roles of Cady Heron and Regina George, but she also plays an administrative role as the assistant dance captain. When she's not onstage dancing one of the 10 different tracks she covers, or acting out two of Broadway's most notorious mean ladies, she's in the audience, taking notes in order to clean choreography in the next rehearsal. "Once the show opens and the creative team leaves, the dance captains, stage managers and associates keep things running," Petersen says. "I help teach choreography to newcomers when there is turnover and make sure the dancing looks good from day to day."

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