As a ballerina, Mary Diane Toole Miller danced the classic role of Dew Drop and other characters in “The Nutcracker.” As a dance teacher, Miller is helping young dancers achieve their own sweet dreams of ballet magic.
Miller started taking dance lessons at age 8 from the late Carl Crosby. Today, she owns the studio, the Crosby-Miller School of Dance on Greenville Street, that honors its founder's name.
Miller's mother, the late Mary Durban Toole, a well-known Aiken artist, encouraged her daughter to dance.
“My mother, Mary, was very artistic and an artist; so growing up, she wanted to keep us involved in the arts community. She brought me to the studio, and once I started, I was hooked. I loved it,” Miller said. “I was kind of a quiet child. I loved to read and was kind of introspective. Ballet was just wonderful. I loved every aspect and the company.
“I loved the performing aspect. Ballet gives you the opportunity to perform, but you don't have to go out and say anything. Because I was fairly athletic, it was easy for me. I really enjoyed it, and I was pretty good at it.”
At 13, Miller joined the Aiken Civic Ballet, which Crosby founded almost 50 years ago and is “South Carolina’s longest continuously operating dance company,” according to its website. She danced with the company until she was 17 when her talent led her to an even bigger stage.
Miller won the title of Miss Aiken County and, in 1978, was crowned Miss South Carolina. At the time, she was the youngest to hold the title.
That same year, Miller competed in the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, and through dancing solos and variations she had performed with the Aiken Civic Ballet, she won a talent scholarship.
As Miss South Carolina, Miller took a year off from college but later attended Converse College in Spartanburg and graduated from USC Aiken with a degree in English.
“It was a lot of fun traveling the state. I had great pageant directors and met many interesting people,” Miller said.
Does she still have her crown?
“Of course,” Miller said.
Miller won not only titles participating in pageants. She also met her husband, Charles Miller.
“He was a blind date at the Beaufort Water Festival when I was Miss Aiken County,” Miller said. “My pageant director arranged for him to be my escort after the pageant, and it worked out. We've been together 35 years.”
After her year as Miss South Carolina, Miller danced for almost 10 years with the Augusta Ballet under the artistic direction of Ron and Zanne Colton. Ron Colton danced with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet.
“When I left the Augusta Ballet, we had done a Balanchine ballet,” Miller said. “You have to be awarded a Balanchine ballet. They come and adjudicate your company and make sure that you're good enough to do it. It's quite an honor.”
When Miller left the company, she didn't put her pointe shoes away. She did some work for the Miss South Carolina pageant and taught at local studios and at USCA for six years. She also took time to raise her three daughters. They all danced but, having grown up in Aiken, loved horses more, said Miller, who also did a little riding when she was growing up.
Jessica Miller, her oldest daughter, works in the Aiken Steeplechase office. Her middle daughter, Mary Taylor Miller, named after her mother, is a professional whipper-in for the Cheshire Hunt in Pennsylvania. Her youngest, Brooke Miller, works for Southern Equine Service and wants to be a veterinarian.
Miller said she loved staying home with her family, but in 2005, when Carl Crosby decided to slow down, she took over the Crosby School of Dance, where she took her first steps as a dancer.
“We had talked about it earlier. Finally, he said this is it. I'm ready if you're ready,” Miller said. “I had such wonderful experiences growing up with the ballet company. I really wanted to keep Carl's vision alive – the vision of classical ballet. That was very valuable to my childhood, and it's still relevant today for children.
“He loved ballet. He really translated that – his love of dance, his love of ballet – to us. I really feel strongly about keeping that going. I love ballet. I love the tutus. I love the pointe shoes – the whole formal idea of ballet. Trying to get that to people who aren't always exposed to ballet and dance has been my vision.”
Miller is now the artistic director of the Aiken Civic Ballet.
“We have 25 in the company now, which is my biggest; and we have a smaller junior company, the Ballet Ensemble, with 10 dancers,” Miller said.
The company's next production is “Dracula,” based on Bram Stoker's classic horror story, at 7 p.m. Oct. 18-19 at USCA's Etherredge Center.
The company performed “Dracula” for the first time last October with borrowed sets and costumes. For this year's production, Emily Raynor designed new costumes, and Teddy Palmer is building a new set.
“We had been doing fairy tale ballets like 'Snow White.' I said let's do something a little different that might be a little spicier,” Miller said. “It really has been fun. My Sugar Plum from 'The Nutcracker' is one of the Dracula brides. They love putting their fangs on and being totally different.
“It's contemporary but still ballet. They love that, too. They can do contemporary, and then they're back to their Sugar Plum roles and the 'Dance of the Flowers.'”
As part of an educational outreach program, the company will dance “Dracula” for several hundred school children in the Etherredge Center on Thursday.
“It's for middle school and above, I believe, to give them a taste of the theater and dance and to expose them to different art forms,” Miller said. “We have some boys in the production, and we always like to reach out to boys, too, to see that there are boys who dance.”
At Christmas, the Aiken Civic Ballet will perform “The Nutcracker” as a holiday treat for the community Dec. 20-22 in the Etherredge Center.
“This is our 11th year,” Miller said. “That was always my vision to bring 'The Nutcracker' to Aiken. It allows all of the young kids to be a mouse, to be a party child. They love that. We started last Saturday. Everyone was so excited to start rehearsals, and it's still October.”
In the spring, the Aiken Civic Ballet performs at the Hopelands Gardens concert series.
Between classes and rehearsals, Miller spends most of her time in the studio, but when she's not teaching, she likes to be outdoors.
“I love to be outside, to garden. I just love being outside in nature,” she said. “We have a little farm. We do have a horse. That's what I do when I'm not here.”
Miller is a member of the Green Gardeners Garden Club and the Daughters of the American Revolution, and she helps out at her church, St. Thaddeus Episcopal.
Miller is a seventh-generation Aikenite with deep roots in the city. Her mother grew up on Hayne Avenue, and the family of her father, Gasper Toole, founded the Toole and Toole law firm, which still has an office downtown.
With those connections, Miller said she feels “honored" to be able to teach and share her love of dance and the arts in her hometown.
“I love Aiken,” she said. “I'm so glad and honored to be able to stay here and do what I love to do. I love teaching. That's what I really love. I feel so blessed. I'm from this very town, and I can share that love with a new generation.”