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.

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

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For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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