Emmy Award-winning choreographer Mia Michaels, 43, exudes art and creativity in dance from her freshly shaved head to her expert toes. On Oct. 14, just moments after appearing on a Vegas-week episode of So You Think You Can Dance, she shocked fans across America, announcing (via Twitter) that she was leaving the show after five years. Speculation about her departure ranged from a strife with FOX to rumors of cancer (thanks to her new haircut). On Tuesday, Michaels spoke exclusively with PEOPLE and revealed the factors that drove her decision to leave, as well as what is on the horizon for a woman whose name is synonymous with dance. –Jed Dreben
Why did you decide to move on from So You Think You Can Dance?It’s been an amazing five-year journey and I am in a place where I have all these great opportunities that have been presented to me and I am ready to take on all these challenges. So when I was working on the show, I wasn’t able to really focus on anything else. Now I’m really focusing on these other projects that I can’t pass up. I think that’s pretty much the main reason why I left the show.
What went into the decision to make the announcement the way you did? And did anyone, like close pal and fellow SYTYCD choreographer Tyce Diorio, try to talk you out of it?No, nobody tried to talk me out of it. I’m so about my instincts. Instincts never lead you wrong and they’ve never led me wrong. It was a hard decision, actually, because I love doing the show. I love being an artist that millions of get to see my work. I knew in that moment and we had not even talked about contracts or anything for the new season yet, so I was just ready to move while I had all this other opportunities in front of me. Before I got into the season with the dancers — you know actually getting into a room and creating on them — I just thought it was best for me to step out before I did that.
After your announcement, you appeared on the final Vegas callbacks with your head shaved. Please address all the rumors, including the ones that you have cancer. As far as me shaving my head, I just felt the need to get rid of it. I was kind of falling into a Hollywood image thing a little bit, and I just felt like it was a cool time to just start over. And that’s why I shaved it. And I had said on the show, “It’s been a difficult time,” and it’s like the last couple months in my life personally I’ve just been going through things … And then when I read those things I went “Oh no!” I do not have cancer. You can put that to rest.
Fans may be hoping this is just a break. Will you be back?It wasn’t a break because I came to Canada and I choreographed the finale here in Canada, and I have right now scheduled to do the U.K., and Australian versions of the show, as well as the new Canadian season three, so it’s not like I need a break because creatively I feel like I have a lot to say right now. It was just a decision that I made. It’s just something that I needed to do. I’ve been doing this for a long time and this is just another step in my journey to now take it to the next level.
Do you have any regrets in that you’re going to miss a chance to work with this cast?It’s not like I can’t go and see the family and support the dancers. In order for me to move forward in my career, sometimes we have to let go before other things can take off. Am I sad? There’s moments, of course, but I’m also doing these other shows that I still get my fix on SYTYCD because I’m still choreographing, I’m still judging, I’m still seeing Nigel. So it’s all a very positive thing.
What new experiences are you talking about and what are about to start working on?I am right now in talks of doing my own choreography show. I’m also doing a dance musical that will probably be documented as a doc-reality show. And then I’m working on a clothing line for dancers as well as just everyday lifestyle. And I’m working on a book deal as well.
Since leaving, what have you had a chance to enjoy now that you may not have been able to do while maintaining the show’s schedule?You know sometimes when you’re working on a show, it was like you had to deliver a piece every single week. And you do, you start feeling like a machine. And then you start wondering, “Where is the inspiration for real? Is it inspiration or is that you’ve got to deliver, so you just have to turn it on and do it.” Now I find myself actually more inspired and more excited about creating. I feel like this time is so crucial for me to take that next step in my life.