Choreographer shares her skills—and her philosophy—in online subscription series
by Karen White
It might seem utterly unbelievable, but there was a time when Mia Michaels questioned whether she knew how to make a dance.
She did know, of course. In fact, choreography came so easily to Michaels that she figured she must be doing something wrong. When she first started choreographing recital pieces as a pre-teen, the most knowledgeable person in her dance world was her dad, Joe, who owned the Joe Michaels Dance Studio in Miami. “But he was a teacher, not a choreographer,” she says. So the young dancer wrote a letter to the most popular and successful female dancemaker of the day, Twyla Tharp.
“I asked her, ‘How do you make a dance?’ ” Michaels says. “She responded with five very Twyla-esque tips. None of them had to do with movement: all were about my relationship with myself as an artist. I have that letter pinned up in my office.”
Today Michaels—an Emmy Award-winning choreographer and former judge of So You Think You Can Dance who has worked with the hottest acts (Madonna, Prince, Celine Dion), the brightest Broadway shows (Finding Neverland), and the coolest companies (her own company, RAW; Miami City Ballet)—is the one doling out the advice.
Mia Michaels Live, an online monthly subscription series featuring master classes, mentorship, and more, launched June 1. “It’s tailored to what you need to get to the next place in your career,” she says. “It’s for dancers, choreographers, teachers—a place where you can go and train and get inspired.”
Each month, Michaels posts a new one-hour class video during which she teaches one minute of her singular choreography to a half-dozen or so professional dancers, her instruction interspersed with thoughtful reflections on personal artistry, exploring the new, and digging deep. Michaels describes the black-and-white class footage, shot guerrilla-style in a picturesque, industrial-chic barn, as “very raw and very real.”
“I put my work in the world to inspire the world, and I want people to take it, to grow from it, learn from it.” —Mia Michaels
Other MML offerings include downloadable original music used in the master class videos and Michaels’ monthly music picks, single archived master classes available for purchase, “flashback” videos in which Michaels discusses the creation of some of her popular TV and concert pieces, and a “submit your own work” Artists of the Month contest.
Looking for more insight or personalized advice? MML’s monthly group mentoring sessions, private one-on-one sessions, and open forum allow her to share her years of accumulated knowledge and understanding of the professional dance world with ambitious, hungry young dancers.
“Growing up in my dad’s studio, I had a big dream and lots of goals, but I didn’t understand how to get from A to B to C. My road was by trial and error, and just throwing myself into the mix,” Michaels says. With MML, “if a choreographer wants to ask questions about the creative process, or wants me to look at their work and give feedback, or a dancer wants some guidance, I’m going to be that sort of mentor.”
A virtual dance studio
The idea of learning dance via electronic media has always held a certain appeal, and fed demand for TV broadcasts of The Arthur Murray Party in the 1950s, Bob Rizzo VHS tapes in the 1990s, and today’s YouTube tutorials and online classes. Certainly, access and convenience both play a part, but Michaels recognizes a deeper draw.
“As a master teacher all over the world, I see kids freeze up when they walk into a room with a ton of dancers, or when the work gets hard. Once you feel you are being judged, you get paralyzed,” she says. With MML, “you feel like you are training in class with me, but the format gives dancers the opportunity to try at their own pace, to grow at their own pace.”
Online classes, which require just a computer and an open studio, are an alternative to the expense and scheduling hassle of bringing in a guest teacher, she says. Michaels encourages educators to use what she’s offering in any way that will benefit their students; by scheduling a monthly “master class with Mia,” for example, or by having a faculty member break down the choreography into easily digestible segments to work on with students in a weekly technique class.
“As a teacher, you get burned out constantly delivering new movement and material. It’s exhausting,” she says. “What I’m offering is not a combo—it’s a minute of work. It’s not basic movement. You can take it and really work it with your kids. Or you can take what I give you and turn it into your own choreography.”
Making peace, making plans
Offering up her choreography—happily, and without restrictions—is a sea change for Michaels. She’s a major player in this generation of TV reality show/digital-age choreographers who struggle to deal with the proliferation of pirated creative content. “We can’t get away from social media. It’s a part of our world. Anyone can have access to anything, and that’s a beautiful thing. But unfortunately for creators, as soon as you put anything out there, anyone can take it,” she says.
“I stopped fighting the machine. I can’t be angry. I put my work in the world to inspire the world, and I want people to take it, to grow from it, learn from it. I’m doing this for the right reasons,” she says. “I just don’t want people to steal it like they did before.”
While she has made peace personally with these present realities, Michaels decries the impact on artists, audiences, and the art in general. “Dance today is fused together. I miss the uniqueness of artists back in the day, legends like Alvin Ailey, Bob Fosse, Martha Graham; people who had their own dance language and stood apart. If you went to see their work, you left the theater with a memory or an inspiration,” she says. “I don’t know if we will have that anymore because of technology, where people can actually go shopping for other people’s work. Today it’s all one big pot of the same stew.”
“The format gives dancers the opportunity to try at their own pace, to grow at their own pace.” —Mia Michaels
Michaels calls the MML mentorship program The Unicorn Circle. The idea of the unicorn, a rare creature who shines bright in a uniform world, resonates with Michaels, a self-described “big girl” who struggled to find work as a dancer. Her self-help book, tentatively titled A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys, is due in the spring of 2018, and she’s working on a line of dancewear for full-bodied dancers.
Stories in the book will draw from Michaels’ personal experiences as the “little girl who never conformed,” she says, and who wouldn’t let her body size impact the size of her career. In auditions alongside svelte, well-trained dancers, she was a well-trained unicorn. “Different things in life taught me to stand out, to stay true to my uniqueness and authenticity, and to not conform,” she says. “The difficulty was that I didn’t fit in, but I stayed true to that. I felt that if I was not allowed to dance because of my body, well then, I’d go over here and make my own world of dance.
“If I had been 90 pounds, there would be no Mia Michaels. I’m grateful for the struggle I was given, because that created my entire life.”
Her future plans for MML include inspirational movement sessions for non-dancers and older dancers that will focus on “nurturing and feel-good movements” rather than pre-professional training, she says.
Happy to be home
MML is the result of much soul-searching. Though she is a wildly successful, globally known, celebrity choreographer, Michaels had begun to wonder, “What’s next?” The answer was to return to her dance studio roots.
“I never thought my career would come full circle like this. It’s like having my own studio in a global sense,” says Michaels. For nearly a decade in her early career, she and her sister Dana ran the family studio; Michaels later taught at Broadway Dance Center, New World School of the Arts, and Harid Conservatory, and as recently as this summer, she taught at New York’s Joffrey Ballet School.
“As a creator, you are very selfish, locked in your vision, focused on yourself. Being a teacher is about being selfless,” Michaels says. “Right now I’m following my instincts. Who knew that coming back around to teaching and mentoring would make me the happiest?”
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.