'It’s like being given the keys to a Ferrari' - Tony Mills on taking over at Dance Base

After 20 years working as a dancer and choreographer, Tony Mills is ideally placed to support the sector as the new head of Scotland’s National Centre for Dance, writes Kelly Apter
Tony Mills, Artistic Director, Dance base, Edinburgh PIC: Ian GeorgesonTony Mills, Artistic Director, Dance base, Edinburgh PIC: Ian Georgeson
Tony Mills, Artistic Director, Dance base, Edinburgh PIC: Ian Georgeson

Being appointed artistic director of a national organisation can change a person, but the beanie hat and Adidas top he’s wearing for our interview would suggest Tony Mills is staying true to form. So too would the words tucked into the left-hand corner of his Zoom screen: “Tony Thrills”, the hip hop stage name he’s been using for years. Clearly, taking over the reins at Dance Base, Scotland’s National Centre for Dance, hasn’t changed him – and that’s all to the good.

After almost two decades of “hustling”, as he calls it (otherwise known as constantly looking for the next opportunity to dance, choreograph or find funding in an uncertain sector), Mills is perfectly placed to help those still riding that particular rollercoaster. He may have taken an indirect route to dance (a degree in veterinary medicine), but his love affair with the art form actually began at Dance Base, when he took a breakdance class there as a student in the late 1990s. So it seems fitting he can now channel everything he’s learned as a freelance dance artist into making things better for others.

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“I was going through a process where you start to think less about yourself and more about what you can contribute,” says Mills. “And I was really looking for an opportunity to grow, both personally and professionally. I’ve been dancing and choreographing for a long time and it was developing and I was working on bigger projects. But although it’s hard work I’m not out of my comfort zone.

“You only get so many chances in life to re-invent yourself, challenge yourself and make a leap – and I thought this would really provide me with that. Plus I care about Dance Base and the dance sector, so I thought I’d be able to do some good as well.”

Mills took over as artistic director in September 2021, stepping into the substantial shoes left behind by Morag Deyes. For 27 years, her steady and creative leadership took Dance Base from a small space inside Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms to its purpose-built, architecturally stunning premises on the Grassmarket. Along the way it became Scotland’s National Centre for Dance, with a remit to support the professional dance sector, provide a wide range of classes for the public, and help research the health and wellbeing benefits of dance.

After 18 years of living a peripatetic freelance life, Mills was pleased to find himself with a four-year contract in one place. But at first, he didn’t realise quite how pleased he really was. “To be honest, it wasn’t a case of ‘this is the dream job I’ve been waiting for’,” recalls Mills. “I got the job and that was great – I was able to phone my Dad and say I’ve finally got a salary, you can relax now. But about six weeks in, I came home after a day at Dance Base and realised actually, this is the dream job.

“Fundamentally, I just like to make things happen, whether it’s creating a dance show, putting on an event or anything. And I feel so lucky to be at an organisation where I’m excited to go into work every day. Because I still get to hustle, make things happen and create opportunities.”

Those opportunities include filling what Mills perceives as gaps in the support available for independent artists in the Scottish dance sector. Helping to improve skills, build confidence and create chances to work at a larger scale are his first orders of business. “The independent sector relies a lot on people’s ingenuity and resourcefulness,” he says, “and I’m trying to find ways we can add tangible things people can rely on, so they’ve got support and a platform to take bigger risks.”

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It’s a sector Mills knows inside and out, having run his own company Room 2 Manoeuvre since 2007, as well as working closely with most Scotland-based dance companies and championing the Scottish breakdance scene, including hosting Breakin’ Convention’s Edinburgh shows for ten years. But the professional programme is just one aspect of Dance Base and pre-Covid the building was alive with hundreds of people of all ages taking part in classes from ballet to Bollywood, contemporary to commercial and much more. How did Mills find starting his role during a pandemic?

“It felt a bit sad in some ways, to think about what it used to be like here,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s like a clean slate and that’s exciting. It’s giving us an opportunity to reset and look at how Dance Base conducts itself. There’s a drive and commitment to have a more diverse group of professional artists engaging with our opportunities, and I’m really interested in our community programme and who we’re working with. There’s a great history here so let’s see if we can step it up a level. It’s like I’ve been given the keys to a Ferrari.”

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For those yet to return to Dance Base after its Covid-induced closure or sample what it has to offer, Mills has a message born out of his love for dance. “Dance Base is in the business of giving people an opportunity to experience the kind of joy only dance can give you,” he says. “Whether you’re a professional artist, part of a community group or taking a class, joy is the currency of Dance Base. We just deal in joy here, nothing else.“

For more on Dance Base, see https://www.dancebase.co.uk/

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