Ricci Milan: Untapped

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By Laura Hochnadel
Rhythmic Circus company

Some of the Rhythmic Circus company in action. From left, front: Kaleena Miller, Ricci Milan, and Nick Bowman. From left, back: drummer/beatboxer "Heatbox" and drummer/vocalist Dan Ristrom.

Ricci Milan believes the allure of tap dancing is that not only can the audience watch the dancer—how he moves his body, how his emotions run through his body—but they can hear it.

"The body is the instrument," he says, adding that the accompanying music dictates the dancer's energy. The attraction the audience feels to tap is exactly what hooked him. "I love the fact that you are simultaneously dancing to the music and you also have the opportunity to be a part of the music," he says. "I thought that was the coolest thing."

However, as with any intense physical activity or occupation, whether football, nursing, or running marathons, tap dancing takes a toll on a dancer's body—especially on the dancer's feet. The setbacks caused by an injury to a professional dancer affect not only his or her training, but also his or her pocketbook.

Feet Don't Fail Me Now

"The first person who I complained to [about my feet] was a parent at the dance studio who was a doctor," Milan recalls of his own setback in 2006. He told the physician about the intense pain in his heels and the soles of his feet that had been plaguing him for months. "He said it was plantar fasciitis and I thought 'that sounds like a big word and you're a crazy doctor and I think I'll go now.'"

Believing his shoes were causing his pain, Milan sought advice from Matthew Schroepfer, CPed, owner of Dancing Fair, Minneapolis, Minnesota, a manufacturer and wholesale distributor of dance footwear, bodywear, legwear, and dance accessories. Schroepfer also said, "It sounds like you have plantar fasciitis." Deterred by that "weird word," Milan refuted the diagnosis. Still bothered by the constant pain, he asked his mother for advice and she told him to visit a physician. "So I went to a local clinic, and they said I had plantar fasciitis," he says, adding he was told not to dance for a while.

Because he did not consider that an option, Milan found himself at Dancing Fair, asking again for Schroepfer's assistance. Milan says that he first was referred to Dancing Fair 16 years earlier and continues to return because he says Schroepfer was a "super-excited, passionate, young, cool, hip guy, and when you're 15 you don't find a lot of those. He was 'down' with tap shoes."

Tap dancing is Milan's livelihood. His resumé includes performances for the NFL, NBA, NCAA, Disney, PBS, Target, Compaq, Best Buy, and Opryland. He was the featured soloist in "one The Show," at the Alabama Theater, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and "Tap Happy," showing at Tokyo Disneyland, Japan. He is a master teacher, currently teaching in more than 20 Minneapolis-area dance schools, a few for which he also choreographs. He was the co-creator and co-choreographer of the award-winning, international touring company Ten Foot Five. He also is the co-founder, co-choreographer, and dancer for the international touring company Rhythmic Circus, a Minneapolis-based percussive-dance company whose current production is called "Feet Don't Fail Me Now."

Faced with the prospect of not dancing took a toll on Milan's spirit. It was Schroepfer who bolstered him. "With the enthusiasm of a challenge that Matt always takes on—you can see him get all fired up—he told me at least 50 times, 'You're going to get through this,'" Milan says.

The Dancing Fair staff recognizes that dancers' livelihoods depend on the health of their feet. "We want to make sure we can get them back on their feet and earning an income as quickly as possible," Schroepfer says.

He took a multiprotocol, 24-hour approach to address Milan's plantar fasciitis, which, in concurrence with the physician Milan also consulted, included rest, taking ibuprofen, and applying ice.

"Ricci was in a lot of pain," Schroepfer recalls. "Every step of the way we were focused on getting Ricci back dancing again."

Schroepfer tried a combination of custom-made and modified off-the-shelf orthotics for Milan's dance shoes and his street shoes to ensure that he was getting the support he needed. Schroepfer also prescribed a night boot, an adjunct to the one Milan's physical therapist had prescribed, to ensure that the plantar fascia was "pulled on" throughout the night. And because orthotics don't always work in a dancer's shoes or for walking around the house barefoot, Schroepfer found additional success with Milan using the Fullerton, California-based Dr. Roth FABS foot wraps.

Schroepfer's efforts and Milan's compliance throughout the process paid off. "I was able to continue dancing and get through it all at the same time," Milan says. He is no longer plagued by plantar fasciitis and now understands the importance of prevention and self-care. One low-tech solution: he rolls the soles of his feet over the top of a golf ball daily. "That's the most magical thing," he says, adding that he also stretches and believes it is important to stay hydrated.

Happy Feet

Research shows that babies are born to dance, that they respond to the rhythm and tempo of music. Milan is living proof. He says he began taking dance classes when he was six years old—a tap/jazz/ballet combination class. "I was doing Michael Jackson impersonations on my front porch for the neighborhood kids—[dancing to Jackson's Off the Wall album]—and I wouldn't stop dancing," he says. "So my mom said, 'Maybe we should put this kid in dance class.'"

Milan, now 31, has been dancing ever since.

Until he was about 20 years old, he trained in tap, ballet, jazz, and contemporary movement, but in the past ten years, Milan's training has focused on hip hop and tap. "Forms of independent movement dance and tap dancing have always been my passion," he says.

Passion is also the reason Rhythmic Circus exists and, based on the rave online reviews, continues to meet and exceed the audiences' expectations. The goal for each member, Milan says, is to reach his or her fullest potential as an individual and for the dance company to reach its fullest potential. Each performance, a two-hour event, features their "hard-hitting, rapid-fire tap and high-spirited music."

While the Rythmic Circus dancers focus on what they do best, Schroepfer continues to help them by focusing on what he does best. Schroepfer's pedorthic research and experience, as well as his passion for outfitting dancers and theater performers with the best shoes for their feet, has led him to develop a flexible tap shoe that weighs less, while maintaining the ability to produce the volume tap dancers desire, and with an increased heel height. Schroepfer says the heel height "pushes the knees forward, and for a tap dancer that is the correct position to be in." He says his shoes are also a bit roomier to allow for orthotics, if necessary.

The type of shoes worn can contribute to causing and preventing plantar fasciitis and other foot ailments. Toward the latter end, for the past few years Milan and Rhythmic Circus have been testing Schroepfer's tap shoes, Grounded Souls (GS1).

"Every other tap shoe just hurts," Milan says. "You put on Matt's shoe, and it feels broken in; it already hugs your foot. You feel like you can just dance right now. It's so awesome."

Another thing Milan thinks is "awesome" is that Rhythmic Circus has plans to open Off Broadway in 2012. "The dream is alive," he says.

Laura Hochnadel can be reached at