Spotlight Iowa City: Teenage ballerina off to New York


Miriam Miller’s workdays often begin at 6 a.m. and continue past 7 p.m. She works six days a week, resting on Sundays only out of necessity. Her daily routine exacts a physical toll on her body, leaving her muscles and joints sore and aching.

But for the 14-year-old Northwest Junior High student, it’s all part of becoming one of the nation’s best ballet dancers.

“She’s one of those girls who just gets it done,” said Rachel Miller, Miriam’s mother.

Miller enrolled her daughter in ballet lessons when she was 3, and soon, Miriam was passionate about continuing.

“I keep going with it because I really enjoy performing and being able to express myself on stage and the challenge to keep getting better,” she said.

Sarah Barragán, the director of City Ballet of Iowa, who has taught Miriam privately for more than four years, said she was first impressed by the ballerina’s dedication and natural ability.

“Her work ethic and performance told me she really could be a dancer if she wanted to,” Barragán said. “I saw the physical potential that she had.”

Miriam’s work ethic and talents have earned her admission — with a full scholarship — to the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York City this summer. The five-week program accepts fewer than 1 percent of its applicants, she said.

The program is affiliated with the New York City Ballet, Miriam’s dream company, and it will enable the eighth-grader to work with the nation’s best teachers and meet dancers on the same path, Barragán said.

Both Miriam and her mother said the news of the dancer’s acceptance caught them off guard, but pleasantly.

“It’s kind of like the Harvard of dance schools,” Miller said. “It was sort of like a pipe dream that you strive after.”

Her daughter’s reaction was somewhat more muted.

“I was in my dad’s office, so I couldn’t scream,” she said. “But I was pretty excited and surprised.”

Though she dreams of dancing professionally and spends approximately 20 hours every week in practice, she engages in activities typical of a 14-year-old — junior-high classes, playing percussion in the school band, and baby-sitting from time to time.

Miller said she believes her daughter’s years of learning dance even helps her academic performance.

“She’s got an incredible memory,” Miller said, noting the rhythmic nature of dancing sometimes applies to her daughter’s playing in the band as well.

The family has had to make some academic modifications along the way — every other day, Miriam leaves school early to attend dance classes, for example. To prevent unnecessary injury, the dancer also takes a less demanding physical-education class — one with special-education students.

“It’s kind of fun,” Miriam said. “I enjoy helping the other kids out.”

But dancing is her most rewarding engagement, she said, and her recent success has filled the ballerina, her family, and her instructor with joy.

“I just felt so proud,” Barragán said. “Our little flower is blooming.”

This is the fifth and final article in a five-part series this week on interesting youth in the community. Check back next week to read about a group of graduating UI seniors.

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