Hugo Miller overcomes stereotypes to fulfill his dancing dream — and inspire others

The members of the Trojan Dance Force have been practicing for almost two hours. In a side gym at Galen Center, they stomp, leap and turn through one routine after another, barely catch their breath before launching into their next piece.

With chests heaving, they line up for a full-out repetition. This is one of the last practice performances with 100% effort before the day can be done. The dancers take their starting positions.

“Force it, ladies,” a woman in the group says before catching herself.

“And Hugo.”

Everyone chuckles. Once the music starts, Hugo Miller needs no reason to be singled out. The fact that the freshman with bouncy blond curls is the first male member of the Trojan Dance Force evaporates in a symphony of stomping feet and rustling pompoms. By championing inclusivity and diversity, the Trojan Dance Force is making history look effortless.

“We step on that court not trying to look like a sea of people, but we celebrate the individual,” Miller said. “Our team is not all about everyone having the same hair length and looking the same but really celebrating the diverse kind of students that go to USC and also the diverse dancers that go to USC.”

The Trojan Dance Force is the latest team to welcome men into its ranks as dance teams on the college and professional levels have tried to become more inclusive in recent years. Six years after the Rams and Saints were the first NFL teams to have men on their dance teams, it was a male Rams cheerleader who first encouraged Miller to try out for the Trojan Dance Force, USC Athletics’ official dance team that performs at home basketball games.

“Being the first male member of Trojan Dance Force means that I get to step out on that court and represent the people like me that exist within this community,” Miller said. “Because I know for a fact that I’m not the only boy here that wanted to be on a dance team. I’m not the only boy that’s interested in dancing.”

The leap to college dance didn’t feel unprecedented to Miller. The son of a contemporary dance choreographer and lifelong performer, Miller was a three-year captain on the Windward School’s cheerleading team. He was an inaugural member of the team when, as a freshman, two senior girls in his advanced dance class approached him about their plans to start a team. They told him to audition.

As he was when he started ballet at 12 years old, Miller was the only boy on the cheer team.

“I was worried it looked like I didn’t belong,” Miller said.

His friends were always supportive, but not everyone in the small school was accepting. He heard a star football player started going around the school voicing his disapproval. Boys shouldn’t be on the cheer team, the player said. It was disgusting.

It was frightening to take the field knowing that someone only a few feet away on the sideline objected to his presence, Miller said. But he didn’t stop.

“Stepping out was really scary, but there’s that fire,” Miller said. “I wanted to dance bigger, I wanted to perform better, I wanted to assert my presence and say, ‘So what if I’m the only boy. So what if you’ve never seen it before. Now you have.’”

Founded in 1995, the Trojan Dance Force had never featured a male dancer before either. Recognizing the moment, coach Mina Ortega gathered the dancers before their on-court debut this season. She reminded them they were making history.

Then when the team stepped out for the first time in front of students at the preseason basketball rally, the cheer was deafening, assistant coach Valerie Ying said. In front of sold-out crowds for both men’s and women’s games, Miller and the Trojan Dance Force have only heard positive reaction from USC fans.

“We always have Hugo’s back,” said team captain Chamine Tran. “We knew stepping out there, as long as we were putting our best selves forward, we didn’t have to care about what anyone else thought because we knew Hugo is an asset to this team.”

Miller’s mother is a choreographer and his father is a film director. Creativity is the family language, he said. A natural performer, Miller also participated in theater when he was younger, but dance, he believes, is “the ultimate connector.”

Because of his passion for dance, Miller knew he wanted to keep moving when he got to college, but the business administration major minoring in dance wasn’t sure if men could try out for Trojan Dance Force. When the team’s Instagram account was running a pre-audition Q&A, he asked if it was reserved for only women.

“ALL Trojans are welcome,” the account responded.

Miller is not the first male to try out for the team, Ying said, but was the only one among the group of about 50 hopefuls this season. He walked into the room dressed in a bright blue Alo set. He knew he was going to stand out anyway. He figured he would lean into it completely.

The multiple-day audition process starts with an across-the-floor technique evaluation as the Trojan Dance Force incorporates numerous dance styles including hip-hop, jazz and cheer. Prospects then learn a routine to be performed for judges on the second day. Dancers go through an interview and finish with a solo dance portion that shows their personalities and performance quality.

Miller aced it.

“There was just something when he danced that drew you to him,” said Ying, who worked with Ortega to whittle the group to a final 14-person roster. “Maybe he didn’t hit every technical thing perfectly — not everyone does — but he really just had something special about him.”

Coaches weren’t worried about having a male member on the team, but they tackled questions they never considered before such as how they would handle costuming. Before the team’s first official practice, Ortega privately asked Miller if he wanted to dance with poms, which many male dancers often don’t use.

Of course, he said.

He has no trouble blending in for this group.

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