To most Kansans, the bright lights of Broadway might seem as far away as the land of Oz. Not so for students of the Miller-Marley School of Dance and Voice in Overland Park, KS. Over the past four decades, many of them have gone on to professional careers on the Great White Way, as well as in dance, television, community theater and film. For them, there really is no place like home.

The credit is due to Shirley Marley, who, from an upbringing on an Iowa farm with an outhouse and no electricity, has created a dance studio where quality training and a strong sense of family have translated into unparalleled success. “We believe in creating triple threats—those who can dance, sing and act,” she says.

Marley started studying dance at age 6 in Corydon, IA. In the late 1950s, her family moved to Kansas City, where she began teaching at the Virginia Loncar School of Dance as a high school student. A few years later, Marley inherited the school when Loncar moved to Chicago. In 1963, after marrying Johnny Miller, Marley renamed the school the Miller-Marley School of Dance.

Marley and the school have since become fixtures in the Kansas City community. She has held positions as children’s choreographer at the local Starlight Theatre and as director of the Chiefettes, the dance team for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. At the same time, her school has grown, garnering a reputation for turning out Broadway dancers from the likes of Cheryl Clark (A Chorus Line, Pippin, Chicago) and Lisa Brown (42nd Street, Pal Joey, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) to current performers Marty Thomas (Xanadu, The Secret Garden, Wicked), Renée Feder (Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Anything Goes) and Shannon Durig, who currently stars as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray.

Other alumni have found success in different areas, including former Paul Taylor Dance Company dancer Francie Huber, film actress Sandahl Bergman and television host Constance Ramos. Fourteen former students have also opened their own dance schools in the Kansas City area. In short, Miller-Marley dancers are just about everywhere. As Durig recalls, “Someone asked me at an audition if I was from ‘that school in Kansas.’ When I said yes, they replied, ‘Who are you people and why are there so many of you here?’”

The answer can be found in an unassuming suburban strip mall where Marley’s school has been located for the past 22 years. There, the 16-member faculty, many of whom have been with the school for 20 years or more, teach classes for students ages 3 through adult in ballet, pointe, jazz, lyrical, tap, hip hop, Pilates, voice and piano. Former students also offer regular master classes on such topics as auditioning and what it takes to land a job.

With an eye toward developing students as performers, the school has five performing groups for children ages 6 and up, along with two competition teams. Students also make regular trips to New York City’s Broadway Dance Center and other training facilities and perform in an annual recital or themed production. “Our philosophy is one of inclusiveness,” says School Director Brian McGinness, who has been with Miller-Marley for 27 years. “Regardless of body type and talent level, we are there for every student who walks through our door.”

While Marley and McGinness are quick to attribute the school’s success to their students’ talent and hard work, they also cite the following strategies:
n Offer an abundance of class levels: Marley feels that having more than a dozen class levels helps her and the faculty better place students according to ability, thus helping them learn faster and move up more quickly.

Stay fresh with ongoing teacher training: Marley and her staff annually attend training sessions and conventions in NYC, Los Angeles and St. Louis. “We try to keep up on the latest techniques and trends,” she says. “We never think that we know it all. The advice I give the kids is, ‘When I tell you something, I may change my mind tomorrow when I learn something else.’”

Foster a well-rounded education: According to McGinness, the school encourages students to get involved in drama classes, school plays and other performing opportunities apart from Miller-Marley. The idea is that the benefits of these outside experiences will come back to the school 10-fold through students’ passion and dedication toward training.

Set good examples: “All of my students have seen others from the studio who have gone on and done things,” says Marley. “They know they can do the same because they have seen so many who have. They are training at the same place and learning the same things the others did.”
In the end, Marley feels that helping students believe in themselves is the most important lesson she can pass on. “Shirley put the belief in us that we can do anything we put our minds to,” attests Durig. “When we go on auditions, we know we have everything we need to succeed.”

As for the 72-year-old Marley, being in the studio every day is what gives her life purpose. “I have the best job in the world and am working with the best people in the world,” she says. “I have always felt that your students should be better than you. I want Miller-Marley to be a place where that goal is carried on long after I’m gone.” DT

Steve Sucato is a dancer-turned-writer/critic based in Erie, PA. He writes regularly for several newspapers.

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
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
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 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
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
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Dance teachers are just as apt to fall into the trap of perfectionism and self-criticism as the students they teach. The high-pressure environment that is the dance world today makes it difficult to endure while keeping a healthy perspective on who we truly are.

To help you quiet your inner critic, and by extension set an example of self-love for your students, we caught up with sports psychologist Caroline Silby. Here she shares strategies for managing what she calls "neurotic perfectionism." "Self-attacking puts teachers and athletes in a constant state of stress, often making them rigid, inflexible and ultimately fueling high anxiety rather than high levels of performance," Silby says. "Perfectionistic teachers, dancers and athletes can learn to set emotional boundaries. They can use doubt, frustration and worry about missing expectations as cues to take actions that align with what they do when teaching/performing well and feeling in-control. Being relentless about applying a solution-oriented approach can help the perfectionist move through intense emotional states more efficiently."

Check out those strategies below!

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
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

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
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox