Working with choreographer Mia Michaels seems to be at the top of every dancer's bucket list. In her decades-long career, she's collaborated with music greats including Prince and Céline Dion; crafted Emmy-winning pieces for "So You Think You Can Dance"; created dreamy works for her own company, RAW; choreographed Broadway's Finding Neverland; and worked with a little troupe called The Rockettes. Now, with the release of Michaels' new book, A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys, out May 1, dancers far and wide can benefit from her career-making advice. Dance Spirit sat down with Michaels to get the inside scoop.
Tell us a little bit about the book.
It's motivational, inspirational, and autobiographical. It's kind of its own thing, because it has stories about experiences that have shaped me, but it also goes into a workbook format that helps the reader access their own inner unicorn—their true uniqueness and authenticity. My lessons are your lessons. What I learned along the way to celebrate my unicorn will help you learn to celebrate yours.
Explain the title for us.
I always knew the title would have something to do with unicorns. When I teach, if someone is really special, I always say "Oh my gosh, you're such a unicorn." A unicorn is someone who stands out and doesn't necessarily want to fit in. They want to stand in their truth and let people see who they truly are. After years of being in the dance world, I came to realize that when I auditioned dancers, I gravitated towards the artists that were tapped into who they are. They allowed themselves to come through in the movement. That becomes a whole different experience to watch.
What made you decide to write a book?
I got to the point where I knew I needed to tell my story in a bigger way. I realized my whole philosophy, concerning individuality, could only go so far in dance. So four years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book. I felt like it was an important message, especially now with everything that's happening in the world. These days, your only true sense of stability is yourself—and your faith in yourself.
What was the process of writing like?
It felt like choreographing on paper. I learned a lot about myself through it, too. It was fun to travel back into my life and see the lessons I've learned and how I've evolved. Writing is very difficult, but I love it. I find it so cool that you can hold the piece of work in your hands, whereas a choreographer's work is in the air. You can only hold it in your memory. It's very poetic.
Is there anything in the book readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I talk about growing up and being a little bit of a misfit because I was different. There are also stories about some of the people that I've worked with, including Madonna, Prince, and Céline Dion. I share some really fun moments and some really devastating moments. It's quirky, it's funny, it's emotional. People will get to know who Mia Michaels is on so many levels—not just as a choreographer, but as a real person.
Check out this exclusive excerpt from A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys:
The truth is, none of us is "normal." We're all unique because we were made that way. "Normal" is just an illusion that Donkeys—the mainstream, the trend followers and rule enforcers—perpetuate so that they feel less afraid.
Denying your individuality because you're scared, insecure, or frustrated has consequences. Fighting or hiding your true nature to fit into a standard is a recipe for depression, boredom, addiction, self-harm, and extreme blandness. I've seen it happen too many times among my students. When I think of the wasted joy and creativity, because of fear, I just want to cry.
The stakes are high for Unicorns to live an authentic life. If they can do it, they have so much to offer the whole world. I can't wait to see what the future holds for people who use their gifts. With guidance and encouragement, young and young-at-heart artists can break new pavement and reimagine what's possible. Leaders can overcome social pressure to conform, turn hate into love and fear into hope. We need more Unicorns to stand up and show themselves, and we need these shining stars to take our beautiful planet into the future."
A version of this story appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Mia Magic."