Back in January, tap dancer and choreographer Kaleena Miller posted a short video on her Instagram page. Miller, now 33, appears as a 7-year-old in the clip. And she’s dressed as a monkey, tap dancing away with another little girl alongside Twin Cities choreographer Karla Grotting. With her enormous monkey ears, tail and little red suspenders, Miller the adorable grade schooler exudes precocious talent.
As a kid in Anoka, Miller was an aspiring dancer who soaked up the 1990s Twin Cities dance scene, dazzled by companies such as Danny Buraczeski’s Jazzdance and the all-male tap troupe Ten Foot Five. She recalled watching Grotting, her very first dance teacher, perform bold works by Minnesota choreographer Joe Chvala. “As a kid I was like, Oh my gosh. That is tap dance? That’s amazing.”
Influenced by these unorthodox movers, Miller grew into something of a tap-dancing rebel, intent on experimentation and often performing as the only woman in male-dominated ensembles. As a high schooler, she brought her quest to top Twin Cities teachers including Grotting and Char Weiss before studying dance at the University of Minnesota.
And now she’s emerging as a visionary and artistic leader in her own right.
Miller co-founded Rhythmic Circus with Ricci Milan and Nick Bowman in 2007, a year after earning a bachelor’s degree. All three were dancers with Buckets and Tap Shoes, a percussive dance troupe known for drumming on 5-gallon pails (Miller was the company’s sole woman dancer). But Miller and her friends longed to strike out on their own. Their debut Rhythmic Circus show featured exuberant tapping, cheeky costumes and a live seven-piece brass band. It quickly became a touring sensation with engagements all over the world, from Scotland to China.
As if the globe-trotting schedule weren’t enough, Miller then co-founded the big-hearted Twin Cities Tap Festival with Brenna Brelie in 2015. And in her spare time, she slowly started building her own dance company, a creative outlet for untangling weighty topics not usually explored in dance. Eventually, Miller found herself wanting to direct more energy to these newer pursuits. So she took a giant step and left Rhythmic Circus in April.
She explains her reasoning this way: “I no longer wanted the Tap Fest or my work to be my side project. I wanted them to be my focus.”
Her decision paid off. For one thing, it gave her the head space and time to make a leap with choreography, presenting her first evening-length work for the first time in June. The show featured a strikingly minimalist aesthetic, with tap dancers acting almost as instrumentalists, creating their own score.
The show caught the attention of veteran Twin Cities choreographers.
“Kaleena has definitely found a voice of her own within tap,” said Chvala, one of the many Twin Cities choreographers Miller admired as a youth. “Her last concert was a good example of tap that is very versatile — you can do a lot of things with it.”
“What she’s doing is different,” agreed Grotting. “Her art expresses a more 360-degree discussion.”
While the dance company satisfies Miller’s need for creative expression, the tap festival satisfies another need: connecting Minnesota with the broader tap community while helping locals network with national artists. This year’s festival (Oct. 19-22) features public performances (plus dance workshops) by nationally regarded tappers such as Jason Samuels Smith, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Dianne Walker and Mark Yonally as well as Minnesotans including Milan, Chvala, Grotting and Rick Ausland.
Helping with the festival is veteran tap dancer and U professor Ellen Keane, who has been producing tap festivals since the ’90s. “Kaleena is breaking out as a choreographer and rising as a leader in our community,” said Keane, who also serves on the tap festival’s board. “It’s so exciting to watch her development, to see what she’s creating.”
Even as her dance career booms, Miller is careful to stay grounded. “Part of tap dancing is always raising the bar,” she said, “but it’s also sticking with the basics, making sure they’re as honed and as good as they can be.”
Honoring forebears like Chvala and Grotting is another priority, especially with the tap festival. “I hope people can see that in trying out new things, I’m constantly paying homage to those who came before me,” she said. “Because this form would be nothing without them.”
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts writer.