Mia Michaels: fear, courage and being a unicorn in a world of donkeys

by Joanna Pieters | Follow her on Facebook here

Mia Michaels has reached the very top of her world, touring the globe and in demand by top stars and producers, TV shows and companies. But it wasn’t always this way: she was once the misfit child with the leg brace, who was told repeatedly she had the wrong body to dance. But when I asked her about her greatest creative challenge, I wasn’t expecting her to tell me that it’s right now. We talk about ‘project Mia’, and how it’s different to anything she’s faced before.

We also dive deep into fear. Mia writes that ‘Every time I sit down to write—or go into a studio, or begin a relationship—I’m scared. Venturing into the unknown keeps my art and my heart alive.’ We talk about the ‘vortex of craziness’ of stepping into the unknown, and daring to listen to the voice inside you. 

In short: “We need more unicorns to stand up and roar and be themselves and celebrate all the quirky, beautiful, sloppy, messy, gorgeous things about themselves instead of trying to be this perfect precious thing that fits into the cookie cutter norm.”

If you’ve ever felt a misfit, as though you didn’t quite belong, or the world doesn’t get you, this episode is for you. Because there are more of us than you think.

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Joanna Pieters: Hello and welcome. I’m so thrilled today to welcome Mia Michaels. She’s a multiple Emmy winning choreographer, best known for her appearances on the hit tv show, So You Think You Can Dance and her choreography of the Broadway show, Finding Neverland. Mia has worked with everyone from Prince to Johnny Depp to Madonna, but it wasn’t always this way. She started out a misfit with a leg brace who just wanted to dance even though she found everybody telling her that it was impossible, that she was the wrong shape. She’s just written a book with the best ever title, a Unicorn in a World. Donkeys, a guide to life for all the exceptional, excellent misfits out there. Mia, welcome to the creative life show. What does it mean to you to lead a creative life? You probably can’t imagine anything different.

Mia Michaels: I don’t know anything different. I was born and raised in a dance studio, so always music and movement. And I just was always a dreamer. So I would always just constantly create things and dream about things and, and so I don’t really know anything else. I just always, when I get an idea or in life, through either through real life or creative life, I just run with it and I’m always just thinking that’s how I tick. I feel like I don’t tick like a normal basic, like, get this as my structured schedule, I have to do this. I’m very much more organic in my life and how I think and dream and how I manifest.

Joanna Pieters: What was it about dance that called you?

Mia Michaels: I question that myself because, I wonder if I would have been in the dance world if I wasn’t born into a family of dancers. They had the dance studio. So I grew up in a dance studio. I did my homework in the broom closet of a dance studio, I went from school to the studio and back. I love dance. When I was a little girl, that was like my passion, and I always questioned it was like, what if I was born to parents that were attorneys or business people or whatever, would I have still been pulled into the dance direction? Who knows, it just was my life. It was where I lived. It’s where I grew up and then it became how I began to speak to the world. I found myself always a little bit awkward and not really being able to connect with people. And so I found myself speaking through choreography and dance. That was how I was kind of became a part of the world, that that is how people understood me, I would say.

Joanna Pieters: And I know you started choreographing in your teens, but even as a young child, were you drawn to the dance creation?

Mia Michaels: Yes, I loved it so much. I, I remember just like, my mom used to say I used to swing a bottle – I was in diapers – to the music in the studio and, and just, loving it. And I remember that was my passion. The only thing I wanted to do was to dance. And then, and then as I got older, I wound up not dancing, due to my body and the shape of my body and, and people saying, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t, but instead of just quitting altogether, I decided, I knew that I had a place in the dance world. I knew that it was my calling and so I needed to figure out how to be in the dance world without dancing. And I figured that out. So now I dance through other people’s bodies. I create through other people’s bodies and, and that’s how I dance. I will always dance in my spirit and I will dance through dancers, bodies because that, those are my instruments.

Joanna Pieters: And when you’re with dancers, are you moving yourself? Are you dancing still?

Mia Michaels: I move, I move. I have a lot of injuries from early on from dancing and pushing myself to crazy extents, but I move, I always move, it comes from a very internal place. It comes from very deep within me. So when I’m teaching and I’m expressing and I’m talking about, where movement comes from. I’m a mover, I just am a big mover, but as far as like tricks and turns and like all of the technical stuff, no, I don’t, I don’t anymore.

Joanna Pieters: Before we go any further, I’m going to ask you to share a story of particular creative challenge. We were talking about that a couple of minutes ago, and you said that situation is now.

Mia Michaels: Yeah, it’s a very interesting place right now. It’s a very vulnerable place. I’ve been a successful choreographer my whole life. I do masterclasses all over the world and motivational speaking and direct and do all this stuff. But I’m at a point right now where I’m just like, where do I go next? Like where is it pulling me? Where, where, and who am I as a creator now and in the world? I can always, you can always have the choice to either look back on all the things you’ve done and you can sit in that and be like, yeah, but I feel like when you do that, I feel like that’s a little bit more stroking the ego and so I tend to let all that go and I tend to want to look what’s ahead and right now I don’t know.

And it’s a very weird thing for me because I’ve always been someone that has always had a big goal and vision and, and I’m going to achieve that. I’m going to go for it, I’m going to get. I’m a very goal-driven person and right now I don’t know what my goal is other than to just be happy and to just be human and to just kind of sit in who I am as a woman and a person and then see what comes up. Because I think my whole life I’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing as a career, as an artist, as someone that really wants to achieve so much in this lifetime, but I’m at a point right now where I’m like, I need to sit and I don’t know, and it’s really uncomfortable and it’s really vulnerable because I’ve never experienced that before. I’ve always been, I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m doing and this is the first time in my life that I have no idea.

Joanna Pieters: This is your first book, isn’t it? And it’s a big book. It’s very vulnerable. It’s wonderful, and you’re going out and you’re seeing people reading it and being moved by it. What role does that play, do you think, in where you are now?

Mia Michaels: It might be that I might need to start working on book number two and with that, I feel like you have to sit still. You have to just sit and, and that was a really hard thing for me doing the first book because I was like, I was directing radio city and I was doing Neverland and I was doing all these projects and it was like I was doing the book in between. So it was a very different kind of process for me. Whereas I feel like now I’m going through so much transition in my life personally as well as career. Maybe there is something else that’s trying to be birthed that has nothing to do with choreography that maybe I just have to be patient and listen. I think that is a really important important lesson – that sometimes it’s not our timing but it’s divine timing and we just have to be patient and trust and it’s hard. But especially when you’re… I’m a mover and Shaker and I’m like, let’s go and let’s achieve and let’s go after the next goal. Okay, I climbed that mountain now, what, what mountain is next. And I can’t see the next mountain right now. And that’s really weird for me.

Joanna Pieters: You talk about in your book about discomfort as a tool for awareness. And you talk about the situation as uncomfortable, that discomfort feel for you at the moment?

Mia Michaels: Uncomfortable! It feels like I’m being moulded into the next phase of who Mia Michael is – that’s what it feels like. I feel like I’m being shaped and shifted by something much greater than myself, in order to be the next phase of who I am and whatever that means, and I think it’s about trusting and about being okay with not having the answers. Um, and sitting in that and that’s, that’s not easy.

Joanna Pieters: Does that hit at times or is it more underlying feeling?

Mia Michaels: No, it’s, it’s a constant right now. Because I’m just kind of like walking in the universe, very unsure. I guess you could say like just kind of like, okay, I’m open and what is coming next? And so because I don’t know, I’m doing a lot of work on myself right now, so I’m doing a lot of soul searching and a lot of Mia time opposed to creating things that are exterior of myself.

Joanna Pieters: So if you got a call from your agent tomorrow saying we’ve got another big show, it involves six months in LA, are you up for it? What do you think you’d be saying?

Mia Michaels: There’s a part of me that I feel like if I take that job, I’m going backwards. Whereas if I stay in this, I’m going forwards. Does that make sense? Because by taking something that I already know and that I’ve already done in a sense, I’m only just doing the same thing that I’ve always done. Whereas by sitting in this place of not knowing and being a little bit uncomfortable, but knowing that it is all a process and there’s something on the other side of this that I don’t have the answers yet. I feel like that part of me, it feels like that would be the answer to kind of stay with this because there’s something that’s brewing that’s much greater than another gig in LA. Do you know what I mean?

Joanna Pieters: This idea that discomfort is a tool for awareness. It sounds like you’re aware there’s something. It just hasn’t got a shape yet or a form.

Mia Michaels: Exactly. Exactly.

Joanna Pieters: Have you been in this kind of situation before? It sounds what you said that you haven’t.

Mia Michaels: No, I have not. I have not. No you got me at a really interesting time, Joanna. Yes. You got me at a very interesting time. I’m going to read my book again. It’s always an interesting thing reading your own words. When I did my audio book, it was… when you write a book too, it’s about the structure and the content and how it flows and and so you kind of lose sight of the spirit behind it because it’s more a tech becomes a technical thing and then months later after it’s released, I go in and I do the audio book. I’m sitting there reading my book back to myself and it literally felt like I wrote this for my future self in a weird way and I was literally like talking to myself as I was reading it and it was feeding my spirit and soul almost like the words were not even mine. I felt like it was something else that was like, it was very cool. It was a very interesting experience.

Joanna Pieters: That’s really interesting. I wondered if you’d written it for kind of almost your future, your past self, if you’d written it for the 20 year old view as sort of reassurance and advice, but maybe, maybe it’s not, but something for the future.

Mia Michaels: Maybe.

Joanna Pieters: Writing a book is a very different thing. What caused you called you to move from dance from motion, from your body to sitting still at a computer and putting it into words?

Mia Michaels: I’ve always had this message, and when I would go out and teach master classes around the world, my message was always the same about authenticity and in stepping into your true uniqueness and celebrating yourself and not conforming and I always had that message and it just kept getting louder and louder and louder. And what I’ve found is that the movement, the choreography, when I would go teach, I used dance as the vehicle in which to speak. So basically when I was in the dance world teaching a masterclass, they understand me as a dancer, as a mover, as a person that teaches movement. And so that was how I got into that place with them. But then once I got them, it was all about the message because it was a life message, was a message that would shape them for their future.

And so my message and my words became the biggest part of my master classes, less about the movement and it was more about my words and what they left with. And so I found myself going, I need to get this message out in a much larger way. Not just the dance world. I felt like it was a very universal message and it was a message that was important. And so that is why I chose to write a book because I felt like it needed to get outside of the dance world and go more mainstream and it has. How it’s affected these young people and say misfits or people that just feel like they quite haven’t found themselves yet, or they’re or they’re not sure where they belong or who they are, and so it’s just giving them the sense of home, a sense of understanding that there’s a home base and there is a place where there is a community of people that, that don’t, aren’t the popular ones and the ones that are like this and that. And the ones that are just maybe a little bit misunderstood or awkward or that they don’t need to fit in.

The thing is there’s no need to fit in. The need is for you to be your authentic and true self because that is the power that we all have within ourselves and, and that we need to stand in that because that is what creates legends. The the people that forge ahead are the ones that changed the world as we know it is because they’ve stayed true to themselves and they’ve not tried to be like anyone else. And so we need more of that right now. We need people to stand in their, in their authenticity.

Joanna Pieters: And you say – I don’t have the exact quote in front of me – but it’s that the unhappy Unicorns are the ones who are not living out their unicorn nature. So it’s about when we’re maybe obsessed by the fact that we are a misfit, we’re concerned by the fact that we don’t fit in rather than actually saying, we are enough.

Mia Michaels: Yes. Yes. I think it’s just switching, it’s like turning the switch the other way and instead of going, like, oh, I don’t fit in, I must be weird, or I must be that. it’s, oh, I don’t fit in, which is amazing and I am awkward and interesting and unique and quirky and those are my qualities that nobody else possesses. I am me. And there’s only one of me in the history of the world. So I am going to stand in that and not try to be like anybody else, you know. So it’s really about shifting the way you think about it and celebrating yourself because it’s kind of awesome. When you think about it, you go like, oh my God, like why would I want to be like anyone else? Because I’m me and there’s only one of me. And so I just find that when, when you really take that and you switch that, it’s like, Oh wow, okay. There are the greatest possibilities and potential of creating your life exactly the way you want it to be. And how it will change the world as we know it because you’re you and there’s only one of you and what you do with it is up to you.

Joanna Pieters: You’re right. The world needs us so much, doesn’t it? It’s so in need of creative thinking and people who are different. The solutions we’ve got are not working, let’s face it.

Mia Michaels: Nope, nope, no. The world’s a very broken place right now and we need more unicorns to stand up and roar and be themselves and celebrate all the quirky, beautiful, sloppy, messy, gorgeous things about themselves instead of trying to be this perfect precious thing that fits into the cookie cutter norm.

Joanna Pieters: One of the things that’s really clear from your book is, embrace your Unicorn, embrace the fact that you are different and the misfit, but it’s not an easy ride. Embracing our uniqueness and being authentic doesn’t mean that we won’t have fear and doubt and all those other things. Those are part of the journey. I particularly wanted to ask you about fear because it’s one of the chapters in your book and it’s something which I see so often with the creatives I work with. There’s a quote here, you write, ‘Every time I sit down to write or go into a studio or begin a relationship, I’m scared. Venturing into the unknown keeps my art and my heart alive’. I love that sort of juxtaposition of things. It’s like, yes, we’re scared, but that’s almost what makes it worth doing.

Mia Michaels: Absolutely. I feel like that is where we should constantly seek because in that unknown, that’s where the growth is and that’s where we expand to the next place and that is where all that good great stuff comes from. If we keep doing the same thing that we do over and over, over and over, we’re just – as a dancer, a choreographer – we’re just doing beautiful exercise. We’re not really doing breaking new territory, or new ground. When you break new ground, it’s so scary because you don’t know what’s underneath it. I’ll speak as a dance in the dance world. It’s like dancers are afraid to look silly or they’re afraid to look stupid and so they tend to stay behind steps and movement that they know they look beautiful doing instead of trying to break through into the unknown spaces where they could look ridiculous. You have to be okay with going through that space of the unknown, the vulnerable space, the ridiculous, this like, you just don’t even know. You’re just in this vortex of craziness and not knowing what it is. And that’s a very scary thing, you know? But it is an important thing in order for growth.

And I will literally go back right now and say that’s where I’m at right now in my life, it’s exactly in that place of the unknown and, what’s happening? And I feel like I’m in this, I’m thrown into this unknown vortex of like, oh my God, but I know that I have to stay in that in order to get to the next place. And so that is kind of where we are. I think people tend to want to stay out of those feelings and out of that place because it’s so uncomfortable and it’s scary.

And of course you fear it because you’re out of control and, we’re human. We want to control things. We want everything to be a certain way because then we can control it and we know what to expect. And just allowing that and trusting trust is the biggest word so that you know that it’s the universe or whatever you believe in, God or whatever that is, that is moulding and shaping and shifting you to the next version of yourself, whether it’s creatively or whether it’s as a human, as a mother, as a wife, as a friend, as a lover, as a artist, creator, business, whatever it is, we just have to trust and get, get into. Seek out those places that make you the most uncomfortable because that’s where your growth is.

Joanna Pieters: You say make fear your friend. We’ve probably heard something like that before, but in practice I think when we’re be confronted with that terrifying situation, it’s so easy to believe that somehow our gut or our brain is telling us this is an unsafe place and therefore we should get away from it. What do you do? What do you tell yourself when you notice the fear settling in,

Mia Michaels: The words ‘this too shall pass’. That’s a big one for me because I know that it’s only temporary. Just stay on course and just know that you’re in the right place. I think that there’s different kinds of fears though. If there’s fear of your safety or fear of things like that, then that of course you steer away from then you get out of there. But if there is something that is more about more of an internal thing, I think that that is where you just have to sit and you have to trust and know that this too shall pass. And when it does, you get to that next evolution of yourself and we call that, with the Unicorn getting thicker and stronger, the horn is growing.

Joanna Pieters: I wonder for you, if you’ve almost run out of things that are scary enough within dance, you can’t get any bigger than what you’ve done. Is that part of the reason you then had to write a book?

Mia Michaels: Maybe. I, I think as a choreographer, I’ve done, I’ve done a lot, and I feel fulfilled. if I never choreographed again, I would be okay. I feel like I’ve said what I needed to say as a choreographer. However, I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. I have a feeling that I’m still always going to speak as a choreographer. That’s part of who I am. But I find myself wanting to speak in different ways. as a director, I love to create worlds and I love to create the entire picture, the entire world. I’m in love with the fashion world and also, with the literary world and just exploring all these new things. But I think my biggest project right now is Project Mia. That’s my biggest project right now.

Joanna Pieters: Do you have a sense of what that might look like in a year or 10 years time?

Mia Michaels: Yeah, I do. My whole life, I went from project to project and honed my craft as an artist and, and constantly worked in this and that. But ‘where was Mia?’ and and the growth of who Mia is? And so I think I know that on the other side of this, the power that I will have, and the understanding of myself as well as who I am in the world – I already have that, but I have a feeling that when I get to the other side, it’s going to be so far beyond where I’ve ever been, which is only going to inspire the world in a greater way. I feel like it’s my calling to help others and to change lives and to empower and motivate and I have a feeling that right now the lesson is within myself so that I can be a greater teacher and inspiration for the world.

Joanna Pieters: I’m going to pick up on something you say in the book and you say that to follow your dreams there’s the principal of three, do three things every day to move towards your dreams. Three hours of playing the piano or an hour playing the piano and an hour writing emails and then an hour of going out and meeting people. Is that something you can apply to to Project Mia?

Mia Michaels: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Whether that’s meditation and journaling, or, reading certain things, or going to seminars or reaching out to the right people to, guide me. I find myself very hungry to learn things outside of the things I already know, like you know languages and I want to pick up. I want to learn how to play a violin and I want to travel more. Like all these things I think are more layers to the onion. You know what I mean? I really want to enrich myself and my life not only as being an artist, but being a human and being the great explorer of life. I think that that is so important for everybody to be a great explorer of yourself and of your life so that you just don’t get caught up in just doing the same thing over and over again.

It’s so easy to do it. It’s so easy to just pick up your computer and just stay on that and do that and call this person and do errands and pick the kids up from school and it’s so easy to just have that schedule over and over and over again. But if you don’t do something, even if it’s one to three things a day that can shift and shape you in in this the next phase of who you are and who you want to evolve to, then you’re going to stay the same. And so it’s important to do things every single day that go towards where you want to be within yourself and in your life.

Joanna Pieters: Yeah. Project Mia is not a passive waiting project, is it? I’m sure it is partly, but I’m hearing that you’re not prepared just to let the universe do its thing for you.

Mia Michaels: I think it’s a marriage. I think it’s a collaboration for sure because I believe that ideas and things are put into your mind for a reason. Me and my sister call it connect the dots. like when an idea gets thrown into your mind, you’re like, oh, oh, okay. That’s, that’s interesting. Okay. Then you connect those dots. So when somebody gives me a book or a podcast or something, listen to this, there’s a reason. And so I put that on my list and I make sure that I somehow touch these things that lead somewhere else, and all of a sudden you’re on this other journey.

Joanna Pieters: Yes. I love this idea. And I think if you don’t put the dots in, you can’t join them up.

Mia Michaels: Yes, right. We need a lot of dots. The more, the better and the more colorful the dots! Yeah.

Joanna Pieters: Mia, what, what habits do you have to allow you to stay on top of this period of busyness but also uncertainty?

Mia Michaels: I love on my dog, my English bulldog. She’s the most incredible thing. I try to spend time with friends. I read, I’m also doing meditation and journaling and just trying to keep that exploration spirit going of what, where, what’s happening, but I think meditation has been a really great source of exhale in this time, and this place of trusting. I think it’s been very important.

Joanna Pieters: Has it always been part of your life?

Mia Michaels: No, it’s very new. I would say it’s about three months old. Yeah. And I definitely feel a difference in my self, um, by meditating 20 minutes a day, I find myself just more relaxed and not so stressed out about things and I, and more accepting and more trusting, and less reactive, so I find it a beautiful tool for life.

Joanna Pieters: Me Too. I often find the less I want to do it, the more I need it.

Mia Michaels: Exactly. It’s a discipline, right? It’s just such a discipline and you have to, when things are good in your life, it’s really easy to just be like, okay cool, I’ll pick it up, when I need it, instead of staying consistent with it, even when times are good or bad because it’s so easy to just, release it from your life because you could use those 20 minutes somewhere else, you know?

Joanna Pieters: But it makes quite profound changes in our brains I think in our minds and our ways. We deal with things.

Mia Michaels: Definitely. Yes.

Joanna Pieters: Where can people connect with you, Mia?

Mia Michaels: Either MiaMichaels.com is my website or also on instagram at MiaMichael’s, Twitter is MMRAW. On Facebook, I have a Facebook official and a personal Facebook as well.

Joanna Pieters: And they will all be on the links show notes at creativelifeshow.com. And you’ve got huge numbers of Instagram followers engaged in community and your book is out now. Again, the link will be on the creative life show. It’s for anybody feeling a bit lost, a bit kind of, Oh gosh, I’ve never really quite fitted into this world how I was meant to.

Mia Michaels: Yeah, it’s a reminder. A friend of mine who’s actually a philosophy professor. He read it. He was very resistant to reading it because it didn’t have much gravitas is what he’s used to. And he read it and it changed his life. Literally changed his life because he found himself trying to conform to the universities and what they need. And how to be, exactly what they need in order to get his tenure and this, he became he became a product of what everyone else wanted from him, opposed to, what did he want to be? and who he was and how does he want to speak to the world through his gift of being a philosopher instead of being accepted and being in a place where it’s easier and people love you and it’s just, Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Opposed to instead of going, well, I actually think this way and I actually am going to push back and be who I am and not fit into that. So he found it to be quite powerful for him even as a 40 year old professional because it questioned who he was in his world and in his career.

Joanna Pieters: I think we can be the most donkey like sometimes when we’ve got set into one way of thinking.

Mia Michaels: Well absolutely. So easy!

Joanna Pieters: A Unicorn in the world of donkeys is out now. Thank you so much for coming on. Maybe you’ll be back and sharing what happened with this period when you went bigger and huger and we look for the next level. Thank you so much for listening. Go out this week and be a unicorn. Forget the donkey stuff that’s out there. Go out and shine. Be Your best creative self. Don’t care what other people think of you and come on social media, onto Instagram or Twitter and tag me and tell me how you get on. 

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