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.”