By GWEN OREL
In “Friends and Neighbors” we spotlight interesting Montclairites doing interesting things. Some of them you might have heard of, others you might not. Answers have been edited for space. Got someone you think we should write about? Drop a line to email@example.com.
Sharron Miller is the artistic director and founder/director of Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts (SMAPA), which she founded in 1996. The school offers classes from pre-school through adult, and has a summer academy as well. Miller is a former soloist with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and has performed in seven Broadway shows (starring in “The Pajama Game” with Cab Calloway, singing “Steam Heat”), as well as on television and film. A graduate of The Juilliard School, Miller is not only a resident of Montclair, she is a native, attending Nishuane, Hillside, and then later Montclair High School. She taught at Renaissance Middle School for 13 years. Thirty teachers instruct about 540 teens and preschool students, and 320 adults. The studio rooms on Park Street, where the school has been located for 13 years, are named for color: the yellow studio, the blue studio, the purple studio (Miller’s favorite color). For more information on SMAPA, visit smapa.org.
Why did you move back to Montclair?
I said I will never return again! (laughs). I moved to New York, went to Juilliard, got into Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, did seven Broadway shows, I got married, and where did I move back to? Montclair. My parents were here at the time. This community is very receptive of interracial marriage and biracial children. Where do you move if you’re trying to find a place to raise a child in a community that’s embracing of all people? Montclair.
Why did you found SMAPA?
People are calling it an institution now, because we’ve been around for 23 years. I got stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel trying to come back and pick up my daughter, who was around 4, from Over the Rainbow Nursery School. It was before cell phones and texts. My daughter’s 31 now, and I’m now a grandma. I just thought, I cannot keep doing this. I was coming back from an audition. I still did a lot of television commercials and voice-overs. But dance was who I was, what I was. I thought, “I can’t make a living in Montclair, doing dance.”
I guess I was wrong.
I started out doing a class at the Y, doing dance, I guess in 1992. I founded SMAPA [later] when I was 50.
What made you fall in love with dance?
I was flat footed and knock kneed. My mother took me to an orthopedic person who said you can either break her feet and replant them in casts, so she has an arch, or you can wait until she’s 6 or 7 years old and give her dance. Ballet training will lengthen and strengthen her legs and strengthen her feet. I was born in Washington, D.C.; my mother remarried when I was 6 to a person who moved to Montclair.
There was a little school in Bloomfield that I remember going to. The real reason was to strengthen the arch. When I took class, I guess about the second or third class, the teacher took my mother aside and said, “This young lady has talent. I think she should be in a professional school.”
And that was Garden State Ballet.
What do you think that teacher saw in you?
I don’t know if it’s the old “she’s got rhythm.” When I hear music, I see dance in my head. That’s how I resonate. I know what I see in children. There are little ones who if you just say take a shape, it’s expansive, it’s uninhibited, it’s free. That’s not to say that the ones who say “I don’t know what to do” won’t evolve. Some people are very outgoing and effervescent, some people are shy and retiring, but sometimes the shy ones become outstanding actors and dancers and can lose themselves in it.
Sometimes you see the potential, the love.
Since you didn’t have the best physical facility though, what was it that grabbed you about dance?
I think sometimes you’re born with something that gets unlocked when you see it.
I saw the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in Newark when I was 10 years old. I’d been dancing, studying classical ballet. I knew I didn’t fit that standard of the classical ballet dancer. I would look at people like Maria Tallchief, or Arthur Mitchell, and think they were so wonderful. Then I saw Alvin Ailey. A company of not just African American, because there were Asian and white dancers, but I saw myself. People that looked like me, in bare feet, doing wonderful movements. I knew the modern dance vernacular and I loved it, but I didn’t know where I could take it. Once I saw it, I said, “I’m going to be in that company one day.”
And I was.
I always say to parents who say to me, “what can my child do with a dance education?” “Anything they want.”
It’s important to me, particularly as an African American woman, to be a messenger. I’m a representative of my race, of my gender, of my art.
I can be an inspiration, I hope, to my students.
When parents of color come in here, could be a boy, because we have free ballet classes, will bring them to my office and say “That’s Ms. Miller, she owns this place.”
As if to say, “See? This is what happens. There are no barriers.”
MEET THE NEIGHBOR
Family: Divorced. Daughter, Jaimie Finkel, and granddaughter, Jubilee Duffy. She, the baby and her partner Dennis “DJ” Duffy live with me in Montclair.
Left handed or right: Right.
Pets: Cats. Two, Diablo and Fatty. Fatty is a tabby who likes to eat. I’m not sure what Diablo is. He’s slim and sleek and black.
First job: Mother’s helper. Still a teenager. First job job was summer stock in Hyannis, Mass., doing a show called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” I was Gymnasia.
Last job: This.
Best gig ever: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Beach, forest or mountains: I don’t like sand but I like water. Lake. I would love a lakehouse.
Vacation spot: The Bahamas. I stay by the pool.
What I want for my birthday (which is): My birthday is March 24. Peace of mind. A donation to SMAPA.
Best musical for dance: “West Side Story.”
Favorite musical: That I did, “Pajama Game.” To watch and think about, “West Side Story.”
Favorite drink: Kir Royale.
Favorite dessert: Key lime pie.
Favorite condiment: Ketchup.
Hero(es): Martin Luther King, Jr.
Last book read: “Jump,” by Steve Harvey.
Last TV show watched: I watched the DVD of “BlackKkKlansman.”
I want to meet (alive or dead): Oprah Winfrey.
If I weren’t me (I’d love to be): Maya Angelou.
Job fairy wish (no world peace): If you’ve ever seen the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City, it is five floors of glass with dancers, I would love to have the job fairy come down and give the children
of this community, and me, a beautiful
glass building. That’s what I want the job fairy to do.