Photo courtesy of Robert M. Cooper
Judges on the hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance described contestant and Montclair State alumnus Cole Mills’ dancing as “gorgeous,” “genuine” and “amazing” before naming him as one of the five male finalists who would compete along with five female finalists in the live shows.
“Making the Top Ten is a result of my passion,” Mills says. “No other opportunity in the world gives a dancer an international platform that streams in over 18 different countries to showcase both talent and personality.”
Montclair State Dance Program Director Lorraine Katterhenry agrees with the show’s judges’ assessments. “Cole is a natural performer and a very hard worker. Many guest choreographers saw his talent and he was selected to perform in works by Larry Keigwin, Andrea Miller and University faculty during his time here.”
A Passion for Learning
A member of the Class of 2016, Mills came to Montclair State as a national ballroom dancing champion who specialized in the cha-cha-cha, rumba, samba, paso doble and jive of Latin Dancesport and who had also danced professionally since childhood with Val and Max Chmerkovskiy of Dancing with the Stars fame. The Ocean Township native was more than a dancer: he played lacrosse and football in high school and played rugby while at Montclair State.
Mills recalls that every year the Montclair State dance program handed him a new challenge – from learning to pick up ballet technique to being selected for solo performances. “Ballet was my greatest achievement at Montclair State and was a testament to my dedication and passion for learning ballet technique.”
Life after graduation posed new challenges. “Graduating is tough because there is no class that can teach you how to get on after it,” he says. “After a slow summer, I made a highlight reel and I signed with Bloc NYC and began working commercially at the end of 2016.” While Mills’ credits include work as a background dancer on commercials and TV shows such as Saturday Night Live, he also teaches dance and coaches professional athletes with an “adaptable movement philosophy” he has developed to enhance performance.
Second Time’s the Charm
In 2017, after making it into Season 14’s So You Think You Can Dance top 50, Mills discovered the show is more than a technical dance competition. “It’s a showcase for technical dancers where their charisma – not their turnout – is voted on,” he explains. “So last year, I competed on my technical abilities and didn’t play the game appropriately. But I knew I’d come back.”
To step up his game, Mills trained in his weakest area, hip-hop, before auditioning for the 2018 season. “Knowing that my dancing was where I needed it to be, my challenge this season was to show the judges the performer I grew up as and not forget about putting on a show.”
His approach landed Mills in the Top Ten, although he was subsequently eliminated on the show’s third live episode.
Show preparation is demanding. “You get 11 hours over four days to have a piece ‘show ready’,” Mills says. “There’s no time to feel pressure, though, because your brain is using all its capacity to learn choreography by Monday’s show.”
The greater challenge, though, was the physical toll on his body. “My shoulders were raw from all the lifting. I like to think I train myself at the level of a professional athlete and this show was the hardest game I have ever played.”
While the show brought him back to his ballroom dancing roots, Mills enjoyed competing outside of his comfort zone. “I prefer to get better at things I’m not already proficient in, so ballet and hip-hop are what I most prefer to do,” he says.
So You Think You Can Dance judges clearly sensed this. After viewing his contemporary dance performance before naming him as a finalist, judge Nigel Lythgoe said, “I wouldn’t have said you were a ballroom dancer.” Judge Mary Murphy agreed, “I have never seen a trajectory of improvement like the one you just had.”
For Mills, being part of the show was an unforgettable experience. “There’s no other opportunity where the best choreographers in the commercial industry create works of art specifically for you,” he says. “There is so much emphasis on the dancer that being yourself never felt so good.”