Mia Michaels was 90% done writing her autobiography when something changed.
She had plenty of material to fill the pages, from racking up three Emmy Awards on So You Think You Can Dance, to choreographing her first Broadway musical Finding Neverland, to collaborating with Prince, to revamping New York's famous Radio City Rockettes.
But then she stopped. "There was so much material. I had almost the entire life autobiography done, and then I was like, no. I want to inspire the world," she says, laughing warmly. The resulting book, out today, is called A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys: A Guide to Life for all the Exceptional, Excellent Misfits Out There.
It's sure to stump booksellers on which section to shelve it in. Michaels calls it a workbook slash motivational self-help book, and it has her own life experiences sprinkled among quizzes, lists, charts, inspirational quotes and exercises.
Being a "Unicorn" Brought Her the Prestige She Holds Today
The first chapter introduces Michaels' unconventional upbringing: A daughter of two "hippie" models, she grew up with metal braces on her legs due to a childhood growth discrepancy. "My hip, leg and feet bones weren't developing at the same rate, making one foot bigger, and my hips turned inward," she writes. Beyond this, her natural physicality did not lend itself well to ballet, and she eventually stopped dancing as a teenager.
Swinging back to the dance world as a teacher and choreographer, creating on her own terms, Michaels fought her way to the prestige she holds today. "The world worships the original," she writes, "Unicorns are the originals are the universe. I am one of them."
Choreographing Broadway's Finding Neverland. Photo by Jim Lafferty
She defines a unicorn as, "an exceptional person who revels in his or her peculiarity, despite the tremendous pressure—from parents, teachers, friends, boyfriends, girlfriend, society in general—to be just like everyone else." A child is a unicorn until those forces tame him or her into a donkey: "One who blends, a member of the crowd."
The first workbook quiz is meant to help people figure out which category they fall into: a unicorn, a donkey, or a unicorn in donkey's clothing. The book's 12-step process is mean to help the latter reveal the "glitter layer" underneath.
She Wrote the Book Because Too Many Dancers Are "Donkeys"
Michaels' inspiration for the book stemmed partly from her experiences teaching on the convention circuit. "People gravitated towards my classes because of the message and the life lesson they were learning, not really the choreography," she says, "so I saw how important it was that more people, especially now, need to stand up, rise up in their authenticity and not conform."
When I ask if the dance world has more donkeys or unicorns, her answer is a resounding, donkeys. "Because dancers hide behind steps. It's all just beautiful exercise!" She notes it's particularly pronounced in ballet, where conformity of body type is everything.
Mia Michaels convention classes are always packed–students love her inspirational life lessons. Here, she's teaching at the Dance Teacher Summit.
Her solution? First, figure out how your ego, sensitivity and fear are standing in your own way—yes, through a series of "True or False" questions.
Some of her suggestions are concrete, like going on a cell-phone free adventure. Sometimes they're personal: She tells about her own exercise philosophy and how love for her bulldog Lily helps her "sink into" herself. Sometimes, Michaels borrows wisdom from other great unicorns: She shares a particularly poignant letter that Twyla Tharp wrote to her.
Amid the eclectic conglomerate of activities and anecdotes, Michaels' guide and her story strike on a little bit of magic for those willing to work for it.
On Mia Michaels' own reading list? Unf*** Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life f by Gary John Bishop. "It talks about how we have literally 50,000 thoughts a day running through our heads. If they're negative, they're doing that kind of work in your life. Whereas if you constantly have positive things flowing through your brain, your life just changes."
On the horizon post book launch? A contemporary footwear line called Soul Step Pro. "I'm taking care of people's souls, now I have to take care of their feet."