BACKSTAGE: “A New College Program Trains Dancers to Work in Popular Entertainment”

According to Rhonda Miller, when she approached Pace with the idea of starting a commercial dance program, the administration was extremely excited because her concept dovetailed with the university’s mission to provide students with the kind of education that helps them to make a living.

Until recently, Oklahoma City University offered the only college dance program focusing on American vernacular dance forms, preparing students for work in the commercial dance industry—theme parks, cruise ships, Las Vegas shows, Broadway musicals, films, music videos, rock concert tours, and television. Now, OCU has company. In September, Pace University, in Lower Manhattan, kicked off a new degree program: a Bachelor of Arts in theater arts with a specialized track in commercial dance.
The program is the brainchild of the university’s director of dance, Rhonda Miller, founder and former co-owner of the Edge, one of Los Angeles’ leading commercial dance megastudios. Miller earned a BFA in ballet from the University of Utah and a master’s degree in musical theater from OCU, where she also served on the faculty.
“I was inspired years ago by Jo Rowan at Oklahoma City University, and now I want to bring a very current, up-to-the-minute, inclusive approach to the study of dance in college,” Miller explains in an article in BACKSTAGE. “In my 20 years of choreographing and teaching at dance conventions all over the country, I noticed that so many young dancers are exposed to the world of commercial dance growing up, and they aspire to dance behind pop stars, or perform on Broadway and in Vegas. Most universities, however, have only begun to even consider adding jazz and hip-hop and contemporary styles to their curriculum, much less the kinds of courses that would help students transition from their dance studio training into the commercial dance industry.”
According to Miller, when she approached Pace with the idea of starting a commercial dance program, the administration was extremely excited because her concept dovetailed with the university’s mission to provide students with the kind of education that helps them to make a living. “Originally, Pace was a business school,” Miller says. “And in our program, the students will be given a lot of commercial dance industry inside tips. They will be given information that is current, and they will know how to navigate themselves into the commercial industry when they graduate. They will be given exposure to and will be integrated into the professional dance scenes in both New York and Los Angeles through our faculty members, all of whom are working professionals.”
The program’s roster of regular faculty members represents the diversity of styles demanded of commercial dancers today and includes Radio City Music Hall Rockette Lauren Gaul; Broadway veteran Melissa Rae Mahon, who has danced in “The Producers” and “Cats” and is currently appearing in “Chicago” popular New York City Dance Alliance tap teacher Mike Schulster; aerialist Joshua Dean; hip-hop choreographer Alisa Paradowski; musical theater choreographer Jen Littlefield; and ballet textbook author Janice Barringer. In addition, though the university is in New York, Miller has wide-ranging connections in the professional dance community in L.A. and has arranged for many West Coast instructors to come and work as guest artists.
The program’s curriculum includes course work in acting, voice and movement, the technical aspects of theater (including lighting, sound, and acoustics), and the history of dance and American musical theater, in addition to classes in a variety of dance techniques and styles.
“The dance classes will include traditional training as well as exposure to all the fresh movements you see on television these days and behind all of the singing stars. Also, the business of dance will be very well covered,” Miller says. “What I say to dancers is, if you’re looking for career longevity, this is the program for you. It will give you the knowledge you need to transition through different phases of your career—from performance to choreography to, say, casting assistant or director. It provides a broad view of the industry that will give you a basis from which to build a long and sustained career in the commercial entertainment world.” In addition to a seminar course in which they will explore all aspects of the dance business, students will be encouraged to take advantage of Pace’s numerous business classes.
Miller sums up the program’s goal as “providing an understanding of the dance performing world as well as the business of entertainment.” The university’s performing arts department, under which this program falls, recently appointed a new chair. “His approach is industry-based—not just acting, not just singing, not just dancing,” says Miller with enthusiasm. “He wants our students to understand the whole industry, and that’s particularly important for dancers, whose performing careers are so short. That expanded knowledge base is what will give them career longevity.”
The program prepares dancers to work not just onstage but in all entertainment mediums, and while it is currently performance-oriented, in the future Miller plans to add training for commercial choreographers. In addition, the program’s students have permission to work professionally off-campus, pursue internships, and gain as much real-world experience as possible.
In selecting dancers for the program, which currently has 24 students, Miller is looking for performers who have had a minimum of five years of dance training in ballet or jazz. “They must be intermediate-level dancers, not beginners,” she says. “At the audition, they will be asked to do ballet, jazz, and possibly tap or hip-hop.” Dancers interested in applying to the program can find information about auditions (which will begin in January) at