Miami Stories

Miami Stories: Dance, music bring a lifetime of inspiration

Veronica Diaz as Millie Dillmount in “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Veronica Diaz as Millie Dillmount in “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Courtesy

Let’s set the scene: It’s early 2004, and my mother is taking my younger sister and me to go watch Cats: The Musical at what was then known as Jackie Gleason Theater on Miami Beach.

At 12, the only prior experience I ever had with anything related to theater was multiple viewings of The Nutcracker ballet and, to be honest, after the third time, the excitement dwindles. But this time felt so different, even before the show had begun; the whole atmosphere was more inviting, not as repressed as the behavior expected at a ballet.

I sat excitedly as the curtains rose to reveal a wonderful set, and by the first chorus of the prologue, I was hooked.

I watched in awe as these characters danced and sang before me, keeping my interest the entire time. Not once did I tire of any aspect; it was love at first sight. I was so enamored with the show that once it was over, I promptly begged my mother to buy the DVD of a special Broadway recording of the show. My sister enjoyed the performance as much as I did, and we reveled in watching the DVD over and over again.

After a couple of weeks, we knew each character’s name, the lyrics of each of their individual songs, and even learned the choreography to most of the pieces. We would shamelessly put on shows for our parents, grandparents and little brother and ensure that the world knew of the greatness that was CATS. I am not ashamed of the affection I had and continue to have for this musical. It was that one performance at age 12 that ignited in my heart a love for theater I didn’t know I possessed.

I had taken dance class starting at age 6, and as much as I enjoyed being with my friends and going to class, I knew deep down that I wasn’t very good. I tried my hardest but at best, I was second-line material. But nevertheless, I danced my little heart out for years to come, seeing my sister grow into a beautiful dancer and leave me in the dust. My sister was born to be a dancer; her natural ability is undeniable. A part of me wished I hadn’t made the silly decision of stopping my jazz/ballet training to take one year of hip hop, and I did find my niche in tap dance, but as comfortable as I felt doing that, I longed for more. I continued to dance tap well into my teen years, and even started volunteering in the summers at the studio where I took class, The Roxy Theatre Group.

Year after year, I worked with the youngest group of children and would accompany them to their dance, singing and acting classes, even participating in the activities so as to encourage all of them to do the same. It was all good until one day, during the summer before, I turned 17. I opened my mouth in singing class and someone actually noticed.

The voice teacher asked me to speak with her after my group’s session ended. “Have you ever taken lessons before?” she asked, to which I shook my head silently. “Well you can sing!” I was overcome with emotion.

I had sung in my room or in the shower and always assumed that I sounded nice, but never to a person who could actually tell me so. She asked me to perform in the end-of-summer show with my group, as Fraulein Maria from The Sound of Music in “Do-Re-Mi.” The day of the show, my nerves were at their peak; I had danced in front of an audience countless times, why would this be any different? I sang with my beloved group and surprised not just my family and peers, but myself as well.

I couldn’t pursue my love for theater while in high school because I was heavily devoted to my academics. However, upon entering college and having a little more wiggle room to do what I pleased, I was able to venture out and audition for shows. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I got my first role in a show: Gloria Thorpe in The Roxy Theatre Group’s production of Damn Yankees. Sure, I wasn’t the only one playing the part (the role was shared between another young lady and myself), but it was the principle of it. I was doing what I secretly loved, and that was just the beginning.

I never expected to get caught up in the Miami theater community. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of how prominent the arts even were in Miami. But I’ve seen how much it’s grown since I was a child watching my first musical: from community productions at The Roxy Theatre Group, Actors’ Playhouse on Miracle Mile, Area Stage in Coral Gables, to new and innovative plays at New Theatre in Cutler Bay, and even to professional touring shows at The Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami, there are so many outlets where one could be exposed to quality theater in Miami.

I don’t, however, want to limit Miami’s art prowess to just theater. The dance community here is a fierce one, with so many studios vying for talent. The visual art field in Miami is also a force to be reckoned with, not only in traditional museums, but with areas like Wynwood, a culturally diverse area of artistic freedom with beautiful art, both modern and classic, and excellent food.

I love not only supporting the arts here, but being a part of the arts and growing with that community. This city is bursting with talent, and yet so many people are unaware.

Of course, people automatically connect the performing arts with New York City or Los Angeles. But so many great artists originate from right here at home. Miami is a place that thrives on creativity. I’m proud of the place that it’s become and am very excited to see where it will go from here.

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