Mia Michaels Opens Up About Burning Bridges

Mia Michaels has learned the power of inspiring those she works with. Here, rehearsing Rockettes. Photo courtesy MSG

Dancers are human, which means they're bound to make mistakes from time to time, both on and off the stage. But what happens when those mistakes burn bridges? In an industry so small, is it possible for choreographers and performers to recover?

In a moment of vulnerability, three-time Emmy Award winning choreographer Mia Michaels opened up to Dance Magazine about some of the bridges she herself has burned, the lengths she's gone to in order to rebuild and the peace she's made with the new direction her career has taken because of them. —Haley Hilton

Mia Michaels in rehearsals for Finding Neverland. Photo by Jim Lafferty

My dad always said to be careful of the bridges you burn on the way up because you have to pass them on the way down.

I always felt I was a misunderstood artist in a working environment. I don't want to make excuses for myself, but when I was coming up in the industry and trying to make a name for myself, there were times when my passion and perfectionism came across as being difficult.

I've also always been known for being tough on my assistants. As I've evolved as a human, I look back at my time on "So You Think You Can Dance" and Finding Neverland and wonder, "Why was I so hard on them? Why was I such a bitch?" The answer is because I was afraid of failing.

Back then, I felt like my success depended on those dancers. When you have a fear of failure, it's easy to pin it on the closest thing next to you. So, if my dancers weren't at their highest vibration, I would come down on them. I felt that they were an extension of me, and if they weren't good, I wasn't good. It was an unnecessary, toxic cycle.

Now, I realize that a step is just a step, and there is so much more to life than choreography. How you treat people, the connections you make, and the relationships you build are far more important for the success of your career than just the movement.

In 2014, I took a big risk in order to do Finding Neverland. I sold my house and moved to New York City with little understanding of the nuances in contracts and pay that come with Broadway versus television. I was working with a big agent at the time, and I had a lot of questions about everything. Frankly, I was a pain in the ass and ended up losing him because of it. A woman can't be considered difficult in this industry in the same way a man can. It's a boys' club. If you don't play by the rules you get x-ed out pretty quickly.

I've spent some time repairing those bridges by apologizing for how I handled certain situations. At the end of the day, that's all you can do. Apologize, grow and accept the consequences. Some of those may mean that you don't work for a time, or it may mean your career moves in an entirely different direction. But as long as you focus and do your best, that new path may just be where you were meant to go all along.

Michaels teaching at the 2018 Dance Teacher Summit. Photo by Rachel Papo

In a lot of ways, I think that whole thing may have happened for a reason. If it hadn't, I wouldn't have written my book or thrown myself into creating Mia Michaels Live. In the end, I'm grateful for the direction my life has taken. Now with all of the projects I'm a part of, I strive to treat people with respect and kindness, and make sure everyone leaves feeling inspired.

We are all on a human journey, learning and growing all of the time. Unfortunately, there will be times when all of us make choices that don't serve us (even if we think they will at the time). In any field, if you're difficult to work with, nobody will want to hire you again. It doesn't matter how talented you are.

My advice is to go into every job being the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. Put your best foot forward as both an artist and as a human being. Be a willing collaborator because it takes a village to create great work. When insecurity comes in, identify it, recognize that it's your own issue, and don't put it on anyone else. Apologize when you need to, and accept the twists and turns in your path as they may come.

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