by Taresa Schmidt
Picture a 6-year-old girl on stage for her very first dance recital. She is scared but excited, the new kid in town. She is awkward in her movement but adorable in her glittery, cheetah-patterned costume.
Fast forward ten years to a dance competition (pre-COVID, of course) in New Jersey. A packed auditorium focuses its eyes on a confident, strong young woman, performing her solo routine with such power and passion that the entire room is completely silent. To quote her dance teacher, “It was the moment she learned how to let go and let the performance become a part of her.” To quote her mother, “You could hear a pin drop.”
This story is the evolution of Lily Millard, one of Stage Stars Dance and Acro’s most senior dancers… who also is an assistant teacher. And a choreographer. And sometimes, a fan.
Lily began dancing at Stage Stars (formerly the HAC School of Dance) when her family moved to Delaware in 2010.
“My first class here was hip hop,” said Lily, now 17 years old. “I was scared because I felt like the other kids in the class were more experienced and knew each other. I wanted to make friends.”
Lily may have felt unsure about herself, but her teacher saw something in her and recommended that she audition for a dance competition team that the school’s director, Angie Craft, was forming. “The dancers and parents on the original Opal Team were all new to competitive dance,” said Lily’s mom, Pam Millard, “and I knew absolutely nothing about dance. But Lily loved being on a dance team from the beginning, and Opal had a great first season.”
Lily remembers that the concept of being “on a team” was difficult for her to understand, but by that point, she knew she was hooked – she loved dancing, watching dance, and coming up with her own dances to perform for her family.
“Her first year on the team, the younger dancers weren’t involved in the Wizard of Oz-themed production number,” said Pam, “but Lily still memorized all of the choreography and performed the various parts of it in our family room.”
In fact, that ability to watch dance, practice tirelessly outside the studio, memorize choreography and even come up with her own interpretation has become a large part of Lily’s life. First, as a student teacher.
Lily began student teaching at age 13. “I wasn’t even getting paid,” said Lily. “I was just eager to learn.” Lily has student taught under the direction of three teachers at Stage Stars, including director Angie Craft.
“Lily has grown so much over the years as a teacher and choreographer,” Angie said. “I think Lily learned the discipline of being a teacher while also showing love and passion. It’s exciting to see a dancer start as a little girl looking up to the big girls, and then she becomes one of the big girls, setting an example and teaching the little ones.”
According to Lily, Miss Angie has encouraged her as a teacher in many ways. “She always allows me to bounce ideas off of her. She’s taught me how to take charge of a class and teach choreography while still making it fun for our students.”
Lily’s mom also credits teachers Emily Kohlmorgen and Molly Johnson from Stage Stars with helping Lily learn about choreography. “I think the development of Lily’s love of choreography was a combination of student teaching, working with Emily and Molly over the years, and also taking a choreography class at Cab Calloway,” Pam said. “It is an amazing aspect of Stage Stars that the dancers are able to start working as student teachers early on.”
When Spring 2020 came, and Lily, like the rest of us, was forced to stay home from just about everything, she began choreographing even more. “I was taking dance classes every day on Zoom with my teachers at Cab Calloway and from my teachers at Stage Stars. But I was also just dancing by myself, coming up with choreography in my room and outside in my yard. Quarantine was actually the perfect opportunity for me to focus on that.”
Lily felt this transition was difficult at first. “On Zoom classes, everyone had to get used to cameras and muting themselves and how to move around their own homes,” she said. “And when I was choreographing, the dog kept getting in the way.”
As time went by, it became normal. It had to. “Everyone just really wanted to keep dancing,” she said. And Lily became more confident in her ability to choreograph. In fact, over that time, Lily choreographed a piece for several younger members of the Stage Stars dance team. The piece, called Us, is about two friends, and she feels it’s perfect for the performers because they are such good friends outside of dance. “I wanted this piece to be a story of two people who are so close, and I wanted it to be more about telling that story than about performing tricks.” Us has been performed at four dance competitions this season by Sophie Roberts and Aubree Smith. Judges have commented on the choreography and how the connection between the dancers shines through and tells a story of their relationship.
“We’ve been really lucky to work with Lily,” said Sophie. “She is an amazing teacher and is super supportive and caring.”
Aubree agrees. “We love our practices with Lily because she always lifts us up. She works hard to be the best teacher she can be.”
At the first competition of the Stage Stars dance company’s 2021 season, Lily performed alongside those teammates, dancing in a total of 11 pieces, including three solos. While this year’s competition season is considerably different (dancers wear masks, are separated from other studios, and dance in block scheduling), it has been an opportunity for Lily to perform in front of an audience again.
Until one night in February. While Lily was demonstrating an arabesque to the level 5 class she was assisting, she landed awkwardly on her leg and knew she was hurt. She over-rotated her leg and sprained her knee as a result. It was actually the second time she sustained that injury, but this time, it was a bit more serious. “Because I’ve done this before, I have to be even more cautious, and it’s going to take longer to heal,” Lily said. “I have to wear a brace for support, and I’m in physical therapy. And I have to sit out from a lot of dance. I’ve never missed a performance before. It’s surreal.”
Despite the struggle to do so, Lily is trying to look at her injury as an opportunity to experience yet another aspect of dance – the active observer.
“I’ve never had this opportunity to sit and watch before,” Lily said. “I have this chance to gain a new perspective on all of it. To see dance full-circle. I don’t want to take this chance for granted. I’ve really tried to take a look around me and to watch my teammates and dancers perform. I’ve had this chance to hear teachers’ corrections and then watch how other dancers make those corrections. And I’ve had a chance to see how teachers actually teach their corrections. And I’m hoping that I can apply all that when I’m teaching and when I’m dancing.”
“Through Lily’s injury, she remained positive, supportive, and willing to do what was necessary to heal and to keep her long-term dance career as a priority,” said Angie. “She is the ultimate teammate even though she still can’t perform and compete.”
Which brings us to yet another role that Lily has played as of late – Stage Stars super fan. On March 14, 2021, in a hotel in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, you could hear a lot of loud dance moms and dads (yes, there are dance dads, too) cheering and screaming for their bright, shining stars on an illuminated blue dance floor, constructed for the weekend’s events by Groove Dance Competitions. But there was an even louder fan sitting in the front row. She screamed for her teammates, clapped, and occasionally got up on her crutches and (tried to) run backstage to give hugs and offer words of encouragement. It was Lily, showing up for her team. A team, by the way, that includes her younger sister, Summer Millard. “Summer joined team in 2017,” said Lily’s mom Pam, “and wanted to follow in Lily’s footsteps.”
“Lily’s injury was scary, but it’s given her time to sit and watch her teammates and have the competition experience without being onstage,” Pam added. “Lily’s done an amazing job following her doctor’s orders and she should be back 100% by the time we attend National Dance Honors (NDH) in Orlando.” NDH will be the last competition this season for Stage Stars.
The next chapter in Lily’s dance evolution will take place next year when she is a Senior in high school at Cab Calloway and a senior dancer at Stage Stars. “I’m very excited for next year,” said Lily. “It feels bittersweet, but I’m just excited that I get to do it here. I always knew I wanted to dance, but I never knew I’d have the place here to grow and learn for all these years.”
“I am already dreading the Spring recital in May 2022,” said Pam, “when Lily dances on the stage at Tatnall for the last time.” (Traditionally, Stage Stars recitals have been held in the Laird Auditorium at the Tatnall School) In the year ahead, we’ll be traveling up and down the East Coast and the South for college and dance auditions, and I am looking forward to the next chapter in Lily’s dance career.”
Her teachers agree. “It’s hard to believe Lily is going to be a senior,” said Angie. “She has grown so much over the years as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. She started as a sweet, shy little dancer, and today, she is confident and graceful, the most bold dancer we have ever had. She takes chances and pushes herself out of her comfort zone. It wasn’t always easy, but Lily’s dedication, commitment, hard work, and perseverance helped her to find her passion through the music and movement of dance. Long days in the studio, many hours of practice, and it clicked.
“Lily has learned to lose herself in her music and choreography – so much so that you are mesmerized by her movement and simply captivated. She found what makes her happy and what helps her to get through the good and bad days through her love of dance and choreography. Her 12 years of dance have given her a voice. She will always have a home at Stage Stars.”
So, if you find yourself at that Spring 2022 recital, look for Lily. She’ll be dancing in the wings, helping the youngest Stage Stars dancers perform their recital dances. She’ll be reminding her level 5 dancers of the choreography she helped create for them. She will be hugging her sister, Summer, and helping with her bobby pins. And she will be on stage performing, for the last time, as a Stage Stars senior dancer. And as you will observe, she will do it all with grace and style.