The Assistants

                (L to R) Ryan Ramirez, Mia Michaels and Chaz Buzan.                         All photography by Joe Toreno

Last October, Ryan Ramirez and Chaz Buzan, both 20 at the time, arrived at their Dance Spirit shoot in L.A. with bright eyes and eager spirits. Chaz looked at the massive studio—complete with a view of the Hollywood sign—and yelled, “We are going to live today.” He assessed his clothing options as Ryan took to the hair and makeup chair. Both were ready to go, but neither wanted to make decisions about what they should do or how they would look. That would wait until the boss arrived: Mia Michaels.

Mia is known for being tough on her dancers, and Chaz and Ryan’s reluctance to step on her toes indicated that the day might be tense. When Mia walked in the door, though, the scene was anything but uncomfortable. Chaz and Ryan attacked her with hugs and squeals of “Mama Mia!” It had been more than a year since the trio had united, but it was as if they’d had a sleepover the night before.

The rest of the day was a whirlwind. Despite being different sizes, Mia, Chaz and Ryan all shared clothes and shoes (though the Manolo Blahnik pumps Mia had hand-delivered to the shoot stayed firmly on her own feet). As they moved for the camera—dancing only, “no posing,” on Mia’s orders—the three often became so intertwined that Mia had to untangle herself from the “game of Twister.”

Together they moved as a unit in a style that is uniquely Mia, creating impossibly intricate shapes with their bodies and alternating between moments of quiet stillness and explosive jumps. During breaks, they laughed and joked, but when the camera was on, they were all business.

Both Ryan and Chaz have endured their share of criticism from Mia since they started working together, and they’re constantly pushing themselves to impress her. That day, it was clear that Mia is tougher on her dance assistants than on anyone else—but she also respects, adores and supports them along the way.

“Ryan had her own voice at a very young age. I felt connected to her—she was this beautiful bird that hadn’t even begun to fly.” —Mia Michaels

Ryan grew up performing with Teen Dance Company in Northern California and knew quite well who Mia Michaels was. “She used to come in to set pieces on our studio,” Ryan says. “Every year I’d audition to be in her dances, and every year I’d get cut.” She wasn’t discouraged, though: “I was young,” Ryan says. “It was cool just to be auditioning for her.”

Ryan’s big moment came when she was 16 and performed her solo at The PULSE On Tour, where Mia was on faculty until 2011. “Instead of getting score sheets, we stood onstage while the choreographers critiqued us,” Ryan recalls. “Mia just looked at me and said, ‘I want you to assist me. Will you?’ I obviously said yes, and a couple months later, I got a text from Mia asking me to assist her on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Season 4.”

“When Chaz is onstage, people are like, ‘What is going on?’ He’s a freak of nature.” —MM

Unlike Ryan, Chaz didn’t idolize Mia growing up. He was raised in Phoenix, AZ, and started doing cheerleading competitions with the Arizona Angels Studio when he was 13. He had no ballet training, but began attending conventions with encouragement from the Angels owner.

When then-14-year-old Chaz met Mia at The PULSE, he didn’t have any expectations. “I’d heard her name, but I didn’t know who she was,” he says. He was immediately infatuated, though. “I wanted to be onstage with her,” he says. “I said, ‘Whatever I do, I will dance with her.’ ” One year later, that’s exactly what Chaz did at The PULSE Nationals in NYC. Mia asked Chaz to join her in the senior room where she was teaching a class. “I did an improv piece onstage with Mia and her assistants,” Chaz says. “They were pulling my arms and feet in every direction, grabbing and twisting me. I decided I wanted to experience that every day.” After Chaz performed a solo at The PULSE in Denver, CO, a few months later, Mia approached him. “She said, ‘I’ve had you hanging in my closet for some time now. It’s time to take you down.’ She got my contact information and that was it.”

“We’re a powerful trio. Where one person has a weakness you find another person’s strength. They’re my two special aliens.” —MM

That year, while Mia and Ryan traveled the world together, Chaz was still working to earn a permanent spot as one of Mia’s must-hires. “I thought I was already an assistant,” Chaz says about the first time he danced onstage with Mia. “But I wasn’t. I was an apprentice, which is different.” When Mia had both Chaz and Ryan help her at a PULSE event in Chicago, Chaz was gutted when, after class, Mia invited Ryan to join her in the green room while he was asked to “wait in the ballroom.” “Mia said, ‘Know your place here. You have to earn your assistant position.’ I had tears in my eyes. So I worked my butt off that weekend—I had bruises everywhere and the skin was coming off the tops of my feet.” Chaz wasn’t demoralized: He was determined to prove himself. “After that, I was onstage with Mia and Ryan every weekend,” he says.

Chaz insists he wasn’t anxious the first time he assisted Mia. “I’ve always felt like her choreography was made for my body,” he says. Ryan, however, confesses she was “so nervous” the first time, and slightly in awe. Five years later, she still feels that way. “She deserves the best,” Ryan says. “I want her to be happy. And I know I can be replaced.”

“I said, ‘You need to go away, go grow up, and when you’re ready to be a professional, you can come back.’ He was devastated.” —MM

Both Chaz and Ryan have been replaced. For Chaz, that career-changing moment came when he was assisting Mia with a group routine on “SYTYCD” Season 5. “There were three days of rehearsal, but I only did one before she let me go,” Chaz says. “She told me I was young, weak and unfocused, and said I had a lot of growing up to do. My world shattered, but I understood.” Chaz didn’t see or speak to Mia for the next year, but he took what she said seriously, adding ballet classes to his training. “I came back stronger,” he says, “and she never let me go after that.”

When Ryan was fired, she saw it coming. “I was helping Mia at a workshop, and I knew I wasn’t dancing my best,” she says. “I wasn’t meeting her expectations, or my own. She texted me afterward and said I needed to take a break.” Ryan and Mia went a year without talking, and Ryan decided to audition for “SYTYCD” Season 7. While she didn’t make it on the show that season, her audition brought her back to Mia. “She saw the story I told about our relationship during my audition interview. She said she missed me, thanked me for speaking so highly of her and asked me to start working with her again,” says Ryan, who auditioned for “SYTYCD” again during Season 8 and made the Top 20.

“They are the epitome of perfection when it comes to my work.” —MM

Assisting Mia comes with career-enhancing side effects. “People hear I’m Mia’s assistant, and they assume I’m good. The title comes with credibility,” Ryan says. It also requires a great deal of commitment and, in Chaz and Ryan’s cases, major sacrifices: Both dancers left high school due to the demands of their assisting jobs. Ryan left halfway through her junior year and finished classes online, while Chaz left sophomore year and “never looked back,” he says.

Still, Ryan and Chaz say the sacrifices and hard work are worth it. When they’re called to assist, they’ll gather the day—or hours—before a class to learn a combination. “Sometimes we’re in Mia’s hotel room, moving the couches so we have room to dance,” Chaz says. “She comes up with an idea and an outline of what she wants,” Ryan adds. “From there she’ll describe things and see what they look like on us.” Then, the assistants are by Mia’s side as she teaches the choreography to a room of dancers.

“We’re taking the class, too,” Chaz says. “She’s devoted to watching the dancers, but there are times when she’ll watch us. And she’ll scream at us! ‘More turnout, Ryan. Chaz, use your legs.’ I can get compliments on my technique elsewhere. Mia yells at me for more. When I don’t think I can move anymore, she’s like, ‘Go jump over those 12 chairs.’ ”

Mia takes care of her dancers offstage, too. If a studio or company doesn’t offer an assistant fee, Mia will pay her assistants out of her own pocket. “In the workplace, she has the upper hand,” Ryan says. “In our personal lives, she treats us as friends and equals.”

Being Mia’s assistant doesn’t mean the jobs are constantly flowing, though. Neither Chaz nor Ryan have ever performed Mia’s work for an audience. And while Mia may recommend them for jobs, they still have to audition like every other dancer.

“They will be in my life forever.” —MM

Assisting Mia is what Ryan calls “a roller coaster of emotions.” She says she’s had some of the best moments of her life with Mia, and while the job is “a lot of pressure,” she doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. Chaz plans to stick around, too. “When I’m 80 years old, I will still be teaching Mia’s thoughts about movement and life,” he says.

Regardless of what the future holds, Ryan and Chaz know how valuable the assisting job is. “She changed the path of my career,” Ryan says. “She pushes me because she knows I can be better and wants me to be better. If she didn’t care—if she didn’t think I was good—she’d give up. Those moments when it’s scary—that’s when I grow.”

Photo by Jayme Thornton

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