When we spotted the Emmy-winning ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ choreographer Mia Michaels at the TCA press tour, there was no stopping us — there were too many questions!
Michaels was thrilled to talk when we caught up with her, opening up about being a “big girl” on the dance floor and fueling her legendary dances with her own traumas. We even got her to dish a bit on contestants like Jessica King, who was replaced by Comfort Fedoke in the Top 10 due to a rib injury!
She can dance
SheKnows: I know I can dance, but I can’t be choreographed. Why not?
Mia Michaels: It’s a learned muscle that needs to be exercised. Dancers are trained to just pick it up quickly. Put it in their body and it becomes muscle memory. When I choreograph, it’s a whole ‘nother side than when I’m learning someone else’s material.
SheKnows: Do you have to start young to be a good dancer?
Mia Michaels: When you start so young, it just becomes a way of life. Its how you breathe and walk, but I’ve seen dancers come in at 18 that just have had the gift of dance and have great careers. It depends on the individual. I started at 2, so I dance better than I walk!
SheKnows: How important is body type to dance?
Mia Michaels: I’m 5-foot-11 and a big girl, but that’s why I became a choreographer, because of my ass and thighs. I was a muscular, thick girl and a strong, great dancer, but I couldn’t get a job as a dancer. Back then, choreographers only wanted smaller girls. I had so much passion, so I went into my dad’s studio and honed my craft as a choreographer. I was lucky to have that outlet and a place to start doing that. When I look back, I’m glad I was born with what I was given. I’m not a thin girl and I’m so happy, because that is what pushed me to be a choreographer.
SheKnows: Did anyone try to discourage you from dance?
Mia Michaels: Oh yeah! ‘Give it up. You’ll never be a dancer. You’re fat.’ It pissed me off. I was dance, so when someone said I wasn’t going to do dance, I was like, ‘I don’t think so!’ I decided I was going to create my own dance.
SheKnows: Why do so many dancers go the other way, often hurting themselves to be thin?
Mia Michaels: Dancers get caught up. Think about it: We are looking at ourselves in the mirror all day long, so you’re either going to get full of yourself or you’re going to get screwed up. Dancers usually get screwed up and insecure and pick apart their bodies. ‘Why isn’t my leg going up higher in the back? Oh, because my rear end is big.’ There are also teachers that are very strict about body types.
SheKnows: So as a big girl, have you been rooting for the 12 feet of dance team, aka tall contestants Kourtney and Matt?
Mia Michaels: Absolutely, but I don’t look at a body. I look at their art form, quality of movement, technique and spirit. I don’t look and say, ‘Oh, they’re fat!’ or ‘Oh, they’re short!’ If they can carry themselves with grace and strength and power, then they don’t have a body issue. If they’re falling all over the place and you can see it? There was a dancer this season who didn’t have any strength in her core. She was thick in the center, but that’s not what mattered. She just wasn’t trained and couldn’t hold her center. She had no power. That’s what counts.
Crafting dance for everyone
SheKnows: What was it like choreographing for someone like Jonathan, who’s built like a football player?
Mia Michaels: I thought he had more technique than he did, but he has such intention! It’s amazing. It’s like dealing with this passionate football player.
SheKnows: Do you think Jessica could have gone much further if she’d stayed in the competition?
Mia Michaels: No. I personally think she would have gone this week. It was either going to be Comfort or her. The other girls are too strong for them.
SheKnows: Would you say Jessica’s weakness was physical or emotional?
Mia Michaels: Both. Both. I haven’t talked to her, so I don’t know where she’s at.
SheKnows: How would you characterize the relationship between dancer and choreographer?
Mia Michaels: It’s like a marriage. It’s intense. I’m not one to have dancers come into my room and just stand there, waiting for me to give them everything. I explain what I want, start directing the movement and moving with them. I’m like a painter, painting a picture. Breathing art is cool.
SheKnows: Do the viewers’ and judges’ expectations inspire you to go new places with your choreography or are you always that intense?
Mia Michaels: Me and my boyfriend broke up in April, so I had a lot to work out this season! I was getting everything out. It works for me. When I’m going through a time in my life, I’m usually able to create from that. You know, artists create from that crazy place.
SheKnows: What has it been like to get so much response to your work?
Mia Michaels: In the show, we don’t feel it. Then I step outside in the real world and people are like, ‘Oh my God, I hate you!’ or ‘Oh my God, I love you!’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ I don’t understand. I’m just doing my work. That said, winning the Emmy was the best night of my life and I want to win 10 more! That dance with the bench was inspired by another boy issue. It’s funny. I guess I’m not supposed to get married and have a boyfriend, so I can do good work!
Striking a chord
SheKnows: Why is dance so popular now?
Mia Michaels: It’s the ‘Rocky’ syndrome. We loved Rocky, because we saw how the human spirit and body persevered. America sees what goes into every week. They see the sweat, the pain, the psychical ailments and the breakdowns, and then they see this magic happen on the stage. Also, on our show, you get invested in the individuals and start to care.
SheKnows: In contrast to many reality competitions, this show is amazingly positive. Was that a goal?
Mia Michaels: The beauty of working with Nigel [Lithgoe, judge and executive producer] is that he allows us to be who we are. He never tries to edit or change us. I come back with bleached hair and tattoos and he says, “Hey, good!” He never questions my work or artistic integrity. He’s a great man to work with because he is an artist, as well as a brilliant producer and businessman. He knows to allow us to be free. That is a smart man. If you try to control artists, you’re never going to get good work. You allow them to fly and breathe.
SheKnows: On “American Idol,” we can see what winning or even making the finals can do for your career. What does this recognition do for the dancers?
Mia Michaels: There’s no guarantees and no one has been smart with their win. Nobody’s taken what they’ve done on the show and made it blow up. I try to talk to them and we have agents come in to talk to them. I say, ‘Don’t teach,’ because they’re offered tons of money for it. But they are children! they’re wasting years of being great dancers and performers to teach other children. They need to be dancing while they can!