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On Her Toes: Longtime area dancer Rachel Miller chosen to play ‘Cinderella’ in school ballet.
Story by Danelle Carvell • Photos Courtesy of Rachel Miller

Rachel as the Dewdrop Fairy in 2013 production of The Nutcracker. Rachel is wearing a tiara and a tu tu
(Editor’s Note: Sentinel Contributing Writer Danelle Carvell has earned a Keystone Press Award for a series of articles on area artists. To mark her achievement, here is one of those stories. Rachel Miller will perform as "Cinderella" Saturday, March 28.)

“What is she planning to do with all that hard work and dedication?” is an obvious question for a young woman who has studied dance for 10 years. 

For Halifax resident Rachel Miller, the answer is a bit complicated.

“If you had asked me that two years ago, I definitely would have said that I wanted to be a ballerina in the American Ballet Theater in New York City, but since then, I no longer have the ballet body or really the technique to make it into a prestigious school like that,’’ she said. 

‘‘As much as I hate to say it, (body type) does have a lot to do with dance as a career,” she noted.
American Ballet Theater is one of the premier ballet companies in the world. Of the 300 million people in the US, about 85 make it into ABT, according to Jennifer Long, owner/director of The Studio in Enola, where Miller has been dancing since she was five.

“Just because ABT may not be an option for Rachel doesn't mean dance can't be a part of her future,” Long said. “Besides her ability, beauty and grace, she has an incredible work ethic and is extremely tough when necessary. I’ve seen all of these traits in Rachel and they will serve her well.”

Miller said she realizes that there are exceptions to the “ballet body” rule, but at the same time, she wants to be realistic. 

“There are a couple ballet dancers out there who have made it even though they lack the ideal body, but I don’t think I ever would,’’ she stated. ‘‘But I could still be a modern dancer or a dance teacher. There are a lot of things that tie into your future if you want to be a professional dancer, such as how you eat growing up, how much you exercise, and how many technique classes you take.’’

What is a ballet body? According to internet research: ideally, a ballet dancer will be in proportion; i.e., have a small head, a long neck and a fairly short torso with long legs and arms. Dancers should be lean, not emaciated, but thin and strong, and flat chested. Dancers want this body type because it is more aesthetically pleasing and a streamlined body aids in balance and control. 

But there’s another side to that answer. Attributes like musicality, a strong mental attitude and a quality to your dancing will sometimes compensate for a less-than-perfect body. 

“The more you dance, the more you tone the right muscles,’’ according to a contributor to an internet discussion on the topic. ‘‘As long as you are flexible, have good technique and movement quality, it's not the most important thing in the world anymore to conform to a certain look.’’

One of Miller’s favorite ballet dancers is Maria Kochetkova. She’s a Russian dancer who is barely five feet tall, but she's currently principal dancer for the San Francisco Ballet. 

“I like Maria because she is technically too short for ballet, but she carries herself in a way that makes her look taller on stage. Her dedication and commitment is inspiring,’’ Miller said. ‘‘I love her dancing in general and the way she executes movement is beautiful.’’

As a writer for an online magazine devoted to dance explains, life in the ballet world can be hard for dancers that are not technically the proper height and build; and being told you are not “right” because of something you can’t control can be very discouraging.

A petite person, the writer noted as an example, can find it hard to stand out in a crowded field. Still, it’s possible for a dancer to beat the expectations for the perfect body and get noticed.

Chosen for ‘‘Cinderella’’ lead. Getting noticed is exactly what Miller pulled off recently. 

Earlier this month, it was announced at The Studio that she was chosen to play the lead role in the school's spring ballet production of “Cinderella,” to be held at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center on the Harrisburg Area Community College campus Saturday, March 28. At last year's ballet, Miller was the Dewdrop Fairy in ‘‘The Nutcracker.’’

“I’m so happy to be given this opportunity. I’m excited to work hard and to please not only the directors, but also myself,” Miller said. 

“She deserves it and will do a fabulous job,’’ Long added. ‘‘It has been my great pleasure to be a part of her growth into an amazing dancer. 

‘‘Rachel has so many characteristics that I know will lead her to success. I’m excited to see what her future holds, and all of us at The Studio love her and wish her the very best,” she added.

Even before she started kindergarten, Miller was interested in dance.

 “I used to watch Michael Flatley, an Irish dancer and I watched ‘‘River Dance’’ and ‘‘Lord of the Dance.’’ My mom had those performances on tape and I knew how to work the VCR at nine months. I almost wore it out,’’ she said.

Miller performed her first dance recital with The Studio in 2004 when she was five. She was part of a group dance that performed in a Christmas show at the Marysville Lions Club. And she was only four when she attended her first show, ‘‘Lord of the Dance,’’ in Hershey. 

“My mom took me to see it and from watching that tape so many times, I could predict the next dance as I sat in the audience,’’ Miller said. ‘‘Some women in the audience mentioned to my mom that they couldn't believe, at my age, how engaged and focused I was on the dancing.’’

Miller’s love for Irish dancing left her mother, Autumn Miller-Kembring, wondering what she should do with her daughter's interest. 

“Most two-year-olds were watching Barney and she was watching ‘Riverdance.’ I knew that some kind of talent would show through eventually, but I didn't push her,” Miller-Kembring said.

“My mom didn't know of any Irish dance schools so she put me in The Studio to satisfy my wants until she found an Irish studio,’’ Rachel noted. ‘‘But it turns out that my heart was more in ballet/modern/jazz. When I was 10, I did study Irish dance for four years at the School of McGinley in Lemoyne.’’

Many different dance experiences. At each dance season – which is about the same length as a school year – Miller dances two performances. She guesses that she has done between 18 to 20 of those so far. 

“But we have ballets and we’ve done about five of those, and we do competitions and things like that, so I've probably done close to 40 total performances,” she added. 

Since each performance is different, Miller said that it’s hard to compare them.

“Each one gives you a new experience, so it’s hard to pick just one that's a favorite,’’ she said.‘‘ My favorite would have to be this past year, there was a trio and a dance with four of us. The choreography was my favorite, the song was really deep and personal and I liked the girls I danced with.’’

Miller attended kindergarten through second grade in the Halifax Area School District. She then switched to cyber school in grades three to eight. For the past two years, she has been attending the Capital Area School of the Arts Charter School in Harrisburg, where she now is a sophomore. 

“We spend three class periods dancing. We do academic dance. We study how to create dances and musicality, which is how music affects and helps dancing,” Miller said.

“Everyone who goes there is very accepting of other people. There’s not a lot of judgment or drama. It’s kind of a place to get away from the drama and hardships that you might face in public school,” she added. 

Dance Instructor Rosemary Battista explains how the atmosphere at CASA allows students like Miller to thrive:
“The emphasis on collaboration among the arts drives a connected student body, which translates to happy students, and teachers who are happy  to have students like Rachel,’’ Battista said. ‘‘She is a perfect fit for CASA, where she is surrounded by other students who are there for the love of their art.”
Battista added that Miller is an extremely dedicated young lady who has a wonderful attitude about school and learning. 

“She is very respectful and sensitive to others. She has a passion for dance that shows each day. She works hard but enjoys each moment of moving and has developed into a beautiful dancer,” she said.

‘‘You have to love it.’’ Within 10 years of dancing, Miller has had her share of disappointments. 
One heartbreaking incident occurred when she was about to perform the role of Tinkerbell in a production of ‘‘Peter Pan.’’ Two weeks before the show, Miller sliced her foot on a piece of glass and endured ten stitches. 

“I still had it in my mind that I was going to be Tinkerbell, but at dress rehearsal, my calf muscle on my other foot gave out from being over-worked during the first act,’’ Miller said. ‘‘That night I got a call saying they'd be giving my part to my understudy.

“It was a heartbreaking experience because I had worked really hard for that part,’’ she said. ‘‘It was my first minor lead, and I love Tinkerbell. I was really upset, but afterward I realized everything happens for a reason and you can always make the best of a situation. I came out ready to conquer the next part I was given.’’

Her way of dealing with letdowns is to keep dancing. 

“There's never been a time when I didn’t want to dance anymore. There have been a couple times when I didn’t get to go to a sleepover or a party because I had dance rehearsal, and that can be hard especially for a teenage girl,’’ Miller said. ‘‘You have to love dancing to keep doing it, because if you don't love it you're not going to make it because it requires a lot of dedication.’’

Her mother noted, ‘‘It's been very hectic, especially since she’s dancing at a higher level. It’s a lot of driving and waiting and very expensive. But it’s been worth it. Dance has given Rachel confidence and an ability to interact with people of different ages and backgrounds. And it has taught her the value of hard work.’’

Feet and toes take a beating in those dance shoes, which – contrary to popular belief – actually don’t come to a point. They’re square and flat on the bottom and according to Miller they're made of a type of paper mache. 

“Every now and then if the shoes are ‘dead,’ if you’ve worn them for a long time, it will hurt, but it never really hurt that bad for me,’’ Miller noted.  ‘‘When you get blisters and you go up ‘on pointe,’ that hurts because the shoe rubs against your skin and flesh.’’

Dance still in her future. After graduation, Miller plans to attend college, possibly Pennsylvania State University. 

“I have my eye on nursing or a physician's assistant. I always wanted to help people and be in the medical field,’’ she said. ‘‘I’ll audition for dance teams at different colleges and that will help me determine where and what I want. I’d like to minor in dance then I have that to do whenever I want after I graduate.

“If I feel the desire, I might become a part-time dance teacher or I could join a dance company, preferably a contemporary one,’’ she added. ‘‘It all depends on my passion, technique and abilities in two years.’’

Two years ago, Miller’s goals were different, but she's okay with where she's headed now.

“I never really wanted to give up chocolate chip cookies and burgers just so I could spend 10 years in ballet theater, because then when you hit a certain age in your mid-to-late-twenties, your body stops working, your joints hurt and arthritis kicks in and your career is basically over,” she said.

The dream of being a ballerina was definitely in Miller’s head at one time. She had the ballerina music box and she watched ballet videos on YouTube for hours, wishing she could be just like the dancers.

But today, dance isn't something she wants to turn into a full-time career; it’s something she needs to do because she has a passion for it. And the positive things she gets from dancing are part of that passion.    

“It’s a way to release those inner battles and struggles,’’ she said. ‘‘When I walk into class, the teacher always says, ‘Leave whatever happened this week at the door.’  

‘‘When I go into class, it's about focusing on the movement and the warm ups and releasing yourself. That’s what matters,’’ Miller said. ‘‘Dance is a good way to escape reality. 

‘‘Plus I think point shoes are really fun,’’ she added. ‘‘How many people can say that they can go up on their toes?”