FLINT, Michigan—Small footsteps echo across the worn hardwood floors at Berston Field House in Flint. A miniature dancer skips and tumbles across the room as she waits for class to begin. Sheila Miller-Graham, with ink-black tendrils cascading over her shoulders and a pink ribbon pinned on her shirt, greets the young dancer—one of thousands who have found their footing under Miller-Graham’s guidance for more than 35 years.
Miller-Graham is creative and driving force behind Creative Expressions Dance Studio in Flint. Here students learn not only dance, including ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop and more, but also compassion, and confidence. Miller-Graham is its founder, CEO, and director as well as instructor and choreographer for the studio.
Growing up on Flint’s northside, Miller-Graham always loved to dance. “When relatives would come over, or friends of the family came over, and if they’re playing any music I was the entertainer,” she says. She would perform and then quietly leave the room, “because, you know, children were to be seen, not heard… and there were adult conversations, so you left the room and played with the other kids.”
As she grew to be a young woman through high school and college, she found herself walking the line between confidence and insecurity. On stage, the confident performer—dancing for hundreds even thousands of people. Socially, it was different. She worried about how others viewed her and felt very much alone.
“You may have been looked at from girls, from one stand point of view in terms of being jealous. And boys as one stand point of view. They want to talk to you, but the only reason they want to talk to you is to get the goods, you know. So, you find yourself being alone. But my alone time was good time because it was very productive,” Miller-Graham says.
She immersed herself in dance, starting at the McCree Theater at the age of 14. By 16, she was instructing and at 18 served as a co-director. “I found myself not being with as many girls, having attention from guys, but actually not being with any of them, and focusing on dance. That was my gift, that was my safe haven.”
She graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s in fine arts degree in dance. During her time at the university, she had the opportunity to speak with visiting, professional dancers and learned that dancing on the road would require long stretches of time being away from her family and loved ones. She spoke with famed, long-time university professor Vera Embree. “She said, ‘you don’t want to perform, you want to go into education,’ and I said ‘yes, that’s what I want to do.’”
Miller-Graham opened Creative Expressions Dance Studio in September of 1982—but also actively taught throughout the Flint community. At Northwestern High School, she was the chair of the Fine Arts Department and served as choreographer or director of the dance team, color guard, majorettes, glee team. She has also served as the dance director at Grace Emmanuel Baptist Church for more than 16 years.
Walking through a beam of light in the small staircase and over a weathered floor mat decorated with ballerina legs and the word “dance,” Miller-Graham tidies up the small studio on the second floor before heading into ballet class in a separate studio. Standing with her hands on her hips at the front of the room, Miller-Graham watches the gaggle of young girls in black leotards and beige tights.
Ballet teacher Jennifer Wiley, guides the class through their routine, calling out to those who don’t have their elbows or toes quite right. Wiley has been teaching dance for 25 years, two at Creative Expressions Dance Studio.
Miller-Graham takes a moment to speak to the girls, giving them strict directions about how their hair should be styled for an upcoming performance. Wiley notes with a smile the “very high standards” Miller-Graham holds her dancers to.
“Always striving to be better and not just in dance,” Wiley says.
At Flint Northwestern High School, desks took up less than half of the floor space in Miller-Graham’s classroom—and instead is filled with a mirror-clad wall, storage cabinets, dance uniforms and seemingly endless photos of homecomings, prominent dancers and students, both present and past.
Among her students are senior Manny Woods, 17 and junior L.T. Thames, 18. Both dancers also are on the Flint Jaguars football team. It’s Woods’ first year in dance and he says it made a dramatic difference in his game—improving his confidence on the field, especially when he’s in the pocket.
“I should’ve started as a freshman,” Woods says. “I never knew I liked dance until her class.” Starting the year with only one dance class, he has adjusted his schedule to now host three dance classes this semester alone. “I trust my feet way more. Moving way more.”
Miller-Graham, Woods and Thames line up to dance.
Miller-Graham cues up a song on her phone and Woods and Thames take their positions along side her in front of the mirrors. They started to shuffle and tap to the faint, tinny beat of the music coming from the phone’s tiny speakers. Thames jokes that his mom calls him arrogant. Miller-Graham looks at him with a smirk and nodded her head in agreement with his mother.
It’s a balance Miller-Graham practices with her students: Confident, not cocky.
She is without a doubt a bit of disciplinarian—cursing is not allowed, neither is poor grammar—and her students adore her. Thames says, “teachers don’t care about us like she does.”
Miller-Graham is always there. She is there to see her students experience success and loss. She has watched her dancers perform on a national stage and watched her dance ministry perform at friends’ funerals.
“And it gets hard. It gets hard, you know. You don’t grow numb. You definitely don’t grow numb. It hurts to see that happening over and over again,” she says, gently patting the corners of her eyes with her fingertips. “You cry and you keep going, you know?”
Miller-Graham is constantly busy. Constantly giving. Constantly helping students develop into well-rounded, confident young men and women.
She attributes her work ethic to something her minister told her as a young child. He said contrary to what people might say, it is okay to leave, to go out into the world, to get an education and to experience life. He also said, “Whatever you do: Don’t forget to come back and give to your community.”
So, she comes back to teach “eight days a week.”
More than 4,500 students, now four generations, have followed in Miller-Graham’s footsteps. She instills in them an iron-clad work ethic and a sense of accountability. She teaches them to dance when they’re “hurt, happy or feeling the Holy Spirit.”
She teaches them to experience the world, to respect themselves, and to—no matter what they do—give back to our community.