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.