Ayisha McMillan has spent most of her life perfecting pirouettes. As a dancer with the Houston Ballet, she performed on stages in London, Hong Kong and Toronto. For five seasons, she danced with the North Carolina Dance Theatre — and holds the distinction of being the first African-American woman to play a principal role in the Theatre's production of Nutcracker. But in February of this year, the former professional ballerina spun into the newly created role of principal of the company's School of Dance. It's a role that she says keeps her on her toes.
Arriving a little before 9 a.m. most mornings and often leaving after 8 p.m., McMillan oversees most of the operations of the school. Her days are, unsurprisingly, varied and harried. There are class schedules to do. Programs to plan. Meetings to take. With teachers. With faculty. With wardrobe. There are personnel matters to handle. Auditions to watch. Student conferences. Parent conferences. Fundraising to organize. A queue of people to call back. E-mails to dig through. And, a complex series of performance schedules to orchestrate.
She smiles confidently amidst the seeming chaos.
"I've worn the shoes of every student on every stage of this school — from the very youngest to the very oldest," says McMillan. "So, I have an appreciation not only for what the students are going through, but what along the way contributed to or made possible my success as a professional dancer.
"Whether a student wants to become a professional dancer or not," she continues, "showing up on a regular basis, working hard, understanding a craft and being disciplined will serve them in life whatever they do."
The North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance began working with its first dancers almost 18 years ago. It offers classes for hundreds of students age 3 through adulthood. It is the only dance school in the state affiliated with a professional dance company, which means students are able to support their training by getting performance experience with professional artists. The school mainly follows a traditional school calendar year, but also offers an intensive summer program.
McMillan possesses a unique blend of educational and professional experience that complements her current position. She started as a freshman at Rice University at the same time she started dancing professionally. The long rehearsal hours and travel dictated a part-time academic load, but she persevered successfully for 11 years. By the time she decided to retire from dance four years ago, she was a student at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her plan was to increase her part-time academic load to full-time and to finally claim her degree well-earned. North Carolina Dance Theatre President and Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, however, had other plans.
McMillan's retirement conversation turned into a job proposition, and she immediately found herself off the touring circuit and behind a desk in the marketing department, running box office operations. She handled ticketing, customer service, sales and group sales — and decided to continue at UNC Charlotte part-time.
Four more years passed, and she began full-time college matriculation for the first time in her life. It lasted for a week and a half. An organizational restructure had taken place within the dance school's management, and Bonnefoux wanted her to take the helm. It offered her the chance to marry her experience as a dancer and as a marketing professional.
In the prior structure, there was a director of the school. But in the new structure, McMillan reports to Bonnefoux and will work with him to develop curriculum and standards. She oversees 15 teachers, five pianists and an office staff of three. She also manages a vice principal, Erica Blank, who formerly worked as the school registrar and handles the financial aspects of the school.
The administrative portion of McMillan's role is considerable, and she is working to streamline and improve processes. Included in her plans are strategies to make placement and evaluation forms more objective based, explaining to parents clearly what skills need to be developed to move to the next level. For older students, she's developing ways to make teachers more available to discuss evaluation results and comments in lay terms.
In addition, she hopes to provide resources to set in place healthy eating initiatives and improve body image issues; and enhance scholarship programs to make classes more accessible to students of varying income ranges and ethnic backgrounds.
McMillan loves a challenge and is giving herself a year to set enough systems in place to begin delegating, but she says her success won't be solely based on executed logistics.
"Success for me will be students who come through our school, and they are well-rounded, disciplined, self-motivated and self-valuing," she says. "Some of whom will go on to dance professionally, but most of whom will go on to lead good and fulfilled lives with a true appreciation for dance as an art form."