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
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Lani Corson. Photo by Royce Burgess, courtesy of Corson

Aerial work is growing in popularity in the dance world these days. Don't believe us? Check out this Dance Magazine article! If you're a studio owner who didn't grow up with aerial training (let's face it, how many of us really did?), then you may be feeling a little apprehensive about what to look for when bringing on a new aerialist faculty member. You know exactly what you want from your ballet teachers, your jazz teachers, your tap teachers, heck—even your tumbling teachers! Aerial, however, is a whole other ballgame.

To help you feel confident you're bringing in a teacher who is safe for your dancers, we sat down with Lani Corson, NYC aerialist, circus performer, adjunct professor at Pace University and teacher at Aerial Arts NYC, to get the inside scoop on exactly what you should be looking for.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance teachers have a lot of strengths (communicating corrections, choreographing gorgeous movement, planning excellent recitals, cleaning technique—just to name a few) but when it comes to interior design—talent isn't exactly a given. So when studio owners remodel or build, worrying about the decor can feel a little overwhelming (you've got just a few too many other things to worry about, don't you?).

No need to fear! In 2019 we have Pinterest, which shows us all the latest trends we should know about. To help you make the best design decisions for your studio, we've compiled a list of public Pinterest pins we think you'll love.

You're welcome!

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

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Unsplash

Is dance a sport? Should it be in the Olympics? They're complicated questions that tend to spark heated debate. But many dance fans will be excited to hear that breaking (please don't call it breakdancing) has been provisionally added to the program for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Vanessa Zahorian. Photo by Erik Larson, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet Academy

At the LINES Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco, faculty member Erik Wagner leads his class through an adagio combination in center. He encourages dancers to root their standing legs, using imagery of a seed germinating, so that they feel more grounded. "Our studios are on the fifth floor, so I'll often tell them to push down to Market Street," says Wagner. "They know that they should push their energy down to the street level." By using this oppositional force, he says, dancers can lengthen their bodies to create any desired shape.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

After years of throwing summer parties at your studio, you're likely fatigued by coming up with themes and event details. You want your students to have a good time, but you're also up to your eyeballs in choreography and costume decisions.

Never fear! We've come up with party themes and activities to do during the event. Delegate tasks to your teachers and office managers, and voilà! You have a stress-free party ready to go.

Have a blast, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I recently returned to a modern dance class after a long absence. While I didn't feel any acute pain at the end of class, the next morning I could barely walk from the soreness in both my Achilles. What can I do to fix this?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Q: I'm trying to think of ways to maximize studio space and revenue during the summer. What has worked for you?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox