Photo by Mitchell Kearny
Ayisha McMillan, who took her first creative movement class at age 2, realized by age 9 that she could make dance her profession. After more than 20 years of training and star performances with celebrated companies such as the Houston Ballet, at 33, she now enjoys literally keeping students on their toes in her new role as administrator.
Current position: McMillan was hired in February as principal of North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance in Charlotte. Until December 2010, she served as a patron relations associate in marketing for the dance theater but left to attend college full-time.
Responsibilities: Overseeing faculty, 700 students, budgets, school operations, and management
Training/Education: Formal ballet training usually requires a year-round schedule including intensive summer study. McMillan, born in Minnesota and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, began at age 13 by spending summers at Houston Ballet Academy. At 15, she left home to attend the academy on a full scholarship. She entered Rice University on a National Achievement scholarship at 18 in 1996 but stopped attending full time when her class load conflicted with her dance schedule. “Through your teens, training is intensive. You really need to be prepared to join a professional company when you are 18 years old, and so you can’t really start college full time if you want to dance ballet professionally. They really want to mold you early on. Dancing was what I really wanted to do, so it made sense to make dance my primary focus.”
Maintaining focus: “Dancers are athletes and artists at the same time. Because dance is your art, there are things that are deeply personal about not getting a role or not being cast a certain way. Your art is your purpose; there’s a huge emotional investment. I tended to beat myself up a lot in the pursuit of perfection. That can be overbearing if you don’t keep it in check. It can steal your focus. It’s so important to keep perspective on that [because] for dancers, there’s not a whole lot of praise [from your instructors and choreographers].”
Changing directions: A hip injury in 2005 hampered McMillan’s ability to continue performing. But as an astute networker with business administrators at her dance companies and with an interest in public relations and marketing, she recognized that the business of dance provided other opportunities. “There was an intellectual curiosity that’s different from being a choreographer or a teacher. I always wanted to understand how the ship was running. When it came time for me to stop dancing, I didn’t feel pushed out because of my injury. I began weighing my options.”
Biggest learning curve: “I have a slight build, but for a dancer I was kind of curvy. It took me a long, long time to be happy with what I saw in the mirror in terms of my shape. There is a very set, ingrained aesthetic in ballet for what is beautiful, who is beautiful. One thing I hope to impart to my students is to love the body they have.”