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Rhonda Miller Is Leading the Way for Commercial Dance in Higher Ed

Photo by Emma Driver Thomas, courtesy of Pace University

We're privileged to honor four extraordinary educators with this year's Dance Teacher Awards in August at our New York Dance Teacher Summit. The awardees include Julie Kent, Djana Bell, Rhonda Miller, Sue Samuels and Stephanie Kersten.

In Rhonda Miller's jazz class at Pace University in New York City, dance majors look audition-ready, with wanded hair and strappy bra tops. Miller, who founded one of the only commercial dance BFA programs in the country, wants them to always be prepared to sell themselves to casting directors, producers and directors. "You never know who will walk in," she says. She works to teach dancers in four years what it took her a lifetime to learn about show business.


As a young dancer, Miller dreamed of a career like that of her idol Liza Minnelli. She honed her teaching and performing skills under mentor Jo Rowan at Oklahoma City University. "She guided me to get stronger ballet training and versatility," Miller says.

In 1985, she moved to L.A. and dove in. She worked on commercials and TV shows like "It's Garry Shandling's Show." She learned to create dance for camera, where movement can come from the audience's mobile point of view, as well as from performers. "You're choreographing the camera, as well as the dancers," she says.

In 1992, she and five other dancers founded the convention L.A. DanceForce. A year later, they opened the renowned EDGE Performing Arts Center, where Miller taught jazz and tap and built a huge network of students.

Lauren Gaul, an assistant professor at Pace and a longtime colleague of Miller's, says there's hardly a dancer working today who doesn't know Miller. "You can speak to anyone, and they'll say, 'I took class from her when I was 12,'" she says.

When Miller began teaching college students on the East Coast, she had a realization. "What was missing in higher education was training in the commercial world of dance," she says. Since welcoming the first commercial dance BFA class to Pace in fall 2012, Miller has tried to give her students both halves of what she sees as the complete skill set needed to make it in the industry: versatile performing ability and business savvy.

In addition to Miller's jazz and advanced choreography class, BFA students must also take modern, contemporary, ballet, theater dance, hip hop and tap, along with vocal performance, acting, choreography, aerial arts and a lighting workshop, among other courses. Seniors spend three weeks in L.A. learning dance for camera from the likes of adjunct faculty Mandy Moore (one of Miller's former assistants).

"I think what other students are missing in higher ed is 'How do I get an Equity card? How do I audition for these jobs?'" says Gaul. "We're giving them those tools." Miller's first Pace BFA class graduated in 2016, and alumni are already performing as Rockettes and in Hamilton and Frozen on Broadway, and earning gigs in L.A. in commercials and at the Academy Awards and Grammy Awards.

The Conversation
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It's February! The month of love (and by extension, the month of pink) is upon us. We are major fans of a good class theme, and dressing lovey-dovey is one of our very favorites! So this month, to keep you on brand, we have a list of our favorite pink leos on the market right now. They're all kinds of wonderful.

Check them out and let us know your favorite in the comments!

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It's the day after Valentine's Day, and every single one of us is in a chocolate coma scrolling through endless love posts on social media. It's both the best and the worst day of the year 😂. Obnoxiously mushy Instagram captions aside, whether you have a significant other or not, we all know that your studio co-workers are the actual loves of your life.

Check out our five reasons why, and let us know over in our comments if we got 'em right!

XOXO

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Q: Do you have any advice for dividing students into groups?

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In Antoine Hunter's jazz class, students inevitably pick up sign language just by virtue of being his student. Though he doesn't typically incorporate ASL into his class combos, this dynamic phrase, which is one of his favorites, includes four signs: "heart," " re," "gone" and "deaf."

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Debbi Dee took her first tap class at age 5 from vaudevillian hoofer and rhythm tapper Curly Fisher, in Rochester, New York. She studied tirelessly with him in the garage he had turned into a small, makeshift dance studio until she was 13 years old, when he claimed he had taken her as far as he could, and she needed to find herself a new teacher. Instead, she jumped feet first into her professional career, tapping with the Lawrence Welk and Count Basie orchestras on the traveling state fair circuit, on the Bob Hope USO shows, and in nightclubs in Vegas and the Catskills.

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We've all had times when we've failed miserably while trying our best to communicate important concepts and ideas to our students. We are all well-meaning with hopes that our dancers will achieve their dreams and become kind humans along the way. Unfortunately, our delivery may need some honing in order to help them without causing some damage,

Here are four common phrases dance teachers often say, and four ways we can adjust them to make them constructive and productive.

Let us know over on our Facebook page what phrases you try to avoid as a dance teacher!

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Just like your car, your studio needs periodic tune-ups to keep it humming along smoothly. If you take the time to address a few small fixes, your business will stand out. And you don't have to break the bank, either—you might be surprised how low-cost, DIY improvements can make a surprising difference.

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Running a studio can be a major juggling act. It's no surprise, then, that a few things slip through the cracks—costing you money or students. Watch out for two common but often unnoticed mistakes, and you'll find yourself with more time, clients and revenue on your hands.

1. Using online registration as a crutch

If you offer registration via your studio website, make sure you aren't losing clients by neglecting in-person registration. One day Kathy Morrow, director of Dance Du Coeur in Sugar Land,Texas, overheard a front desk staffer directing a new client to the studio's website to register, rather than offering to do it over the phone. "I thought, You had a fish on the hook—why didn't you walk them through it?" she says. "When you register, there are a lot of boxes to check off. Some people want to pay with a check, some to link to a credit card. We can make it easier by answering any questions directly."

2. Not delegating

Have you heard yourself say, once too often, "If I want it done right, I have to do it myself"? Overextending yourself because of perfectionism or a misguided need to control can be counterproductive. By creating choreography, teaching, bookkeeping, cleaning, making phone calls, typesetting, doing payroll, mailings and ordering, you could be leaving no time for the very things that will create your best business. Misty Lown decided to delegate all the teaching at her Onalaska, Wisconsin-based studio, Misty's Dance Unlimited. "Giving up teaching was super-hard," she says, "but it's the best decision I ever made. Whenever I was teaching, it meant I never saw the other five classrooms that were operating during that time. Now I can rotate my time checking on classrooms and interacting with students."

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Working with a 9-year-old student, Alexandra Koltun asks the young girl to face the barre. She reviews fifth position, demi-pointe with the front foot and coupé devant. "I separate all the positions, so the student understands each one," says Koltun, founder and artistic director of Koltun Ballet Boston. She reaches down to shape the girl's foot into sur le cou-de-pied, leaving the heel in front and gently squeezing the toes around the ankle. "This position will equip the foot with more strength," she says.

Depending on a ballet teacher's preference and style of training, sur le cou-de-pied (meaning "on the neck of the foot") may be incorporated into class at different times and in various ways. From steps like pas de cheval to frappé and développé, the wrapped position can be fundamental to a student's technical development. Or it can be used less often and as a supplement to cou-de-pied front and back. Either way, the value of the position remains constant as a tool to mold and strengthen dancers' feet.

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Show your significant other how much you love them through dance! Send them one of your favorite romantic dance videos that best describes your feelings, and they're sure to swoon!

Here are four of our favorites that depict a range of emotions along the spectrum of true love. Let us know over on our Facebook page which one best represents your relationship!

You're welcome in advance!

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The best way to celebrate a holiday in the dance teacher world is to create a class combo that fits the theme! It's a sure-fire way to get you and your kiddos into the spirit of the day! So, Valentine's Day, we recommend some mushy, cheesy, oh-so-wonderful love songs!

Check out these six songs for potential class combo ideas. They're sure to be a hit.

You're welcome!

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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.

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