“I never expected to make a penny from this,” says AnnMarie Baker, the Co-Founder and Co-Owner, along with husband Robert Baker, of famed Millennium Dance Complex- one of the leading, most renowned dance studios in the country, located in creative hub NoHo Arts District. Her words practically drip with irony as we sit inside this 12,000 square foot building, complete with six fully-equipped studios that house jazz, hip hop, tap and ballet classes to name a few. The space is also rented out for audition, rehearsal and casting purposes as well, with inspirational quotes perfectly displayed on the walls.
With a disposition as perfectly poised and tranquil as the atmosphere inside Millennium, AnnMarie gives me a brief tour of the facility before we settle down in a surprisingly quiet office for our interview. Upon meeting AnnMarie, she completely dispels any preconceived notions one might have about a women of her status. It’s true, she does rub elbows with some of Hollywood’s most noted celebrities and award-winning choreographers, both of which take advantage of Millennium’s flawless studio space. And yes, Millennium dancers, as well as the facility itself, have been featured in reality TV competition shows like MTV’s Dance Life and Becoming, but AnnMarie will be the first to tell you it’s not about that. “It’s about creating a place that’s a happy home for a lot of happy dancers,” she says, “and you don’t have to be a great dancer, you don’t have to be a gorgeous person, or book all the videos- you can just be a person with a heart who wants to dance and know that we support you.”
And for those looking for a career in dance, such support breeds unmatched success as, for the past 20 years, Millennium has been the training ground to some of the world’s top choreographers like Shane Sparks, Charles Klapow and Australian dance-genius Wade Robson who started at Millennium when he was just 10 years old. Yes, Millennium has developed the raw talent of some very eclectic individuals, a type of diversity that AnnMarie saw a need for some 20 years ago. “At the time when I started Millennium, the dance world was very divided,” she says. “You had the ballet studio, the Broadway studio, the hip hop studio and none of it mixed. So my idea was to put everything under one roof and project that dance and movement are phenomenal. And with jazz, or hip hop where something really needs to grow and evolve, I think you need the contrast, or there’s no artistry in it.” Artistry is something AnnMarie should recognize as she’s been creating and studying dance for most of her life as well.
Dancing For Her Life
A Jersey girl, AnnMarie started taking ballet and jazz classes, among others, at the age of 5. Then at 12, ever the early bloomer, walked into a Broadway dance studio for an aerial acrobatics class and never wanted to leave. So it came as no surprise to anyone when, after a few years of college, she opened up her own aerobics studio in New Jersey frequented by many professional dancers. “I would talk to the dancers and tell them my story,” she says, “and they all new the instructor who taught the aerial acrobatics class I had taken years earlier, and he was now teaching at the Broadway Dance Center in New York. So I took a class there, and within three months, I sold everything and moved to New York to study.” And it was in a class on Broadway where she met her future husband and business partner Robert Baker in 1988. Robert, a southern gentleman from South Carolina, was studying theater and dance, having landed a role in the celebrated Broadway musical Dream Girls when he and AnnMarie first met. An instant attraction ensued, and so began the start of a great romance. Then, while still a dance student, AnnMarie was offered a job as Assistant Director of the Broadway Dance Center. An opportunity she was more than qualified for being that she had managed her own aerobics studio back in New Jersey, and an occasion that would more than prepare her for the major changes to come as, after a short time managing Broadway Dance Center, she and Robert decided to relocate to Los Angeles for Robert’s work in the film business.
A Ruckus in the Hills
It was 1991, and Robert was making strides in the movie business while studying filmmaking at UCLA. And with acute tunnel vision, AnnMarie quickly secured another assistant manager position at the legendary Moro Landis Studios in Studio City. But once again, after only three months, things were about to drastically change. “The renters of the studio got evicted,” she says, “and the building owner said to me, ‘I hear you owned your own dance studio, you want to rent this place?’ I took over the lease, and that’s where I got my start in Los Angeles.” AnnMarie immediately went out and purchased boomboxes for the facility, and for the next nine years, with minimal staff, managed Moro Landis Studios to astounding results.
In a quote taken directly from Millennium’s website in regards to the time spent at Moro Landis, AnnMarie explains, “Our faculty was created from raw talent walking through the door. No resumes were required in the beginning; each candidate was tested out in a dance class and hired based on pure ability. The momentum of the hip-hop classes was building right along with the jazz and ballet. Word spread throughout the dance community, and soon we were filled with choreographers wanting to teach and bringing their rehearsals to us.”
During this time, AnnMarie convinced Robert to set up his office at the studio after his first-look deal at Warner Brothers ended, and after a few months- he recalls, “ I fell in love with it!” Robert had been away from the dance world, and was now all too happy to dip his toes back in. But just as things were beginning to take off, another major and unforeseeable shift occurred.
A Fallen Giant, A Rising Star
In 1999, the owner of Moro Landis decided to close the facility, giving AnnMarie a month to vacate. She and Robert quickly packed their things and began the search for another facility, ending their quest here in North Hollywood. “So we moved here, and the area wasn’t as developed back then as it is today,” she admits, “but we were short on time and had no choice. The funny thing is that, even though it wasn’t the prestigious NoHo Art’s District back then, when we first opened the doors to this place- we were instantly knocked over by this burst of energy- and we knew then that this was it.” Sadly, the rent tripled in this new location, but, fortunately, Robert received payment for several movies he had done just in time for the move, so they were able to afford the investment. And with that, AnnMarie and Robert re-launched, changing the name to Millennium Dance Complex after the approaching year 2000. “Then, after we moved in, we realized that all the dancers lived here, so business tripled- and now we’re a staple of the NoHo Arts District,” AnnMarie shares.
And although she ran Moro Landis on her own for the first nine years with great success, Robert’s marketing savvy would take this new studio to an even higher level. “We’ve never paid for advertising,” AnnMarie comments, “it’s just Robert on his laptop. He’s the marketing genius who handles our Facebook and Twitter pages, and all of our contests- meanwhile, I’m good with all the legal and business stuff- and that combination is what’s created the explosion.” And with such an explosion, causing an even greater surge in popularity, employment at Millennium has become increasingly more competitive. “Unfortunately, to get hired here now, the dance instructors need a big resume,” she says, “and if they have a resume, they’ll start out on our substitution list. Because we employ working dancers and choreographers, they can be away a lot, so we use the rotating sub list of people when the instructors are away, and put subs in to see how they fit with us and if we like them.”
Millennium also offers a very valuable work/study program for students who may not be at the professional level, but want to try taking classes for free in exchange for working the front desk. “They’re getting the benefit of free classes, but it humbles them because they’re taking out the trash,” she says. “And after a while of taking classes, they get better. Then when a teacher cancels an hour before class and nobody on the sub list can come in- we can put a work/study in that slot. I can’t tell you how many named choreographers have started out that way.”
Multiples of Many
Now, with Millennium in its white-hot 20th year in the dance world, AnnMarie and Robert are bottling up some of the lighting emanating from the studio and using it to expand through franchising. “We have a reality TV deal where the winner will win a franchised Millennium,” she says, “then we’ll mentor and coach them through the development process, so they can run their own Millennium.” This should gradually ease the problem of taking something magical and reproducing it, while at the same time releasing it, that franchising causes.
Yes, Millennium Dance Complex has been uniting dancers and dance genres with the intent to “love all, serve all, dance more” for 20 years, and turning out some of the worlds top choreographers in the process. But like most artistic expressions, it’s a process that is much less about the destination, and much more about the journey. “I know that dance changed me, and made me who I am,” AnnMarie shares. “It saved my life, and it’s not about dancing, it’s about the internal things because when
you’re dancing, you’re working on your soul.”