The New York Post called it “Toddlers & Tiaras” meets “Real Housewives,” which normally would be enough to send me running in the opposite direction, rather than watch the Lifetime reality series “Dance Moms.” But my daughter is a dancer, my wife is a dance mom, and I myself have even joined the dancers onstage for performances of The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella ballets. I guess that makes me a dance dad. My wife and daughter are hooked on this series, so I thought I’d review Season 1. At least I have a frame of reference.
At our studio—Twin Cities School of Dance—the artistic director is a former prima ballerina who danced with the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theater, performing all over the world. She is demanding of her dancers and pushes them to do their best. If they commit an epic screw-up during rehearsal, she’ll make them do it over and over until they get it right, showing them exactly where they went wrong. Or else she’ll say something like, “Why you do that?” Other than a scowl, that’s about as harsh as it gets, but the kids respond.
There’s no berating, no belittling, no name-calling, no punishing the girls for their errors by demoting them, no shouting matches with parents (in fairness, because our parents act like parents and not reality-show divas), no using the girls to get to the parents, and no punishing the girls for the sins of their moms.
Which is to say, our artistic director is the polar opposite of Abby Lee Miller, the plus-sized, mean-spirited, loud-mouthed director of The Abby Lee Miller Dance Company, who, over the course of the first season, did all of the above. That she would have named the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania company after her should have been enough of a clue to parents (and viewers) that the woman is certifiably egocentric. When one of her young dancers totally messes up in a competition by forgetting her routine, instead of feeling bad for the girl or comforting the crying child, as most people would do, Abby says things like “This has never happened to me before” and carries on like it’s all about her and her “reputation”—which you’d think would take a monstrous hit as a result of this hit series. She’s comes across as a despicable woman who hides behind the attitude that treating the girls this way is the only way to make them successful professional dancers, while of course that’s just not true. If your dancer has a legitimate injury you can still train them to be a top performer by giving their little bodies a chance to heal, rather than shouting at them to “Suck it up.” I mean, some of these girls are only eight years old!
But, as baseball’s Leo Durocher is credited with saying, “Nice guys finish last,” and the moms who send their daughters to Abby’s high-priced dance company seem to buy into that philosophy. Week after week they get in Abby’s face, they lock horns, they shout and scream, and they threaten to leave the school. Sometimes they do. But they always come “crawling back to me,” Abby says into the camera, unable to disguise the satisfaction it gives her.
Why would anyone put up with this, week after week? Well, apart from the obvious—that these moms either love their daughters so much that they’ll do anything to get their little feet in a show business door, or else these days it seems anyone will allow themselves to be shown in an unfavorable light if they can be on TV and become almost famous?
The woman gets results. Abby Lee Miller may be one of reality TV’s biggest villains, but she’s also one of reality TV’s biggest winners. Week after week her dancers train for performances in which they’re often dressed a little too skimpily for their ages or writhing onstage in a manner that’s a inappropriate for their ages, but they walk away with first- and second-place trophies all the time. And former students of hers have appeared on Broadway in “Footloose,” “Wicked,” “Spamalot, “The Lion King,” and “Book of Mormon.” What she hopes to teach her students are survival skills, and to do that, from her point of view, she employs tough love.
The toughness is evident; the love, not so much. Well, unless you happen to be her favorite dancer. It’s clear to the moms and anyone who watches that Abby favors one dancer with special routines, extra time, extra routines, and praise and hugs that the other girls just don’t get. As you watch this series, you feel the anger rise as if you were right in that moms’ room with the other parents. And that’s the draw of the show. If people behaved like normal, considerate adults, if they didn’t talk behind others’ backs, if they didn’t get into all-out shouting matches, there’d be no drama and nothing to watch. Here, you get the blow-ups AND, now a reality show staple, people talking behind others’ backs to give their version of what happened, or more often than not to say something catty.
Unfortunately, all the drama and the bad behavior takes away from the dances and from all the work that these girls put into their routines. Dance becomes secondary, and I know from being a part of rehearsals how dedicated dancers are, how they shrug off non-serious injuries and keep working hard. All of that gets relegated to second billing on the Abby vs. Dance Moms (or Moms vs. Moms) card. But the dancers at least deserve a mention here: Chloe Lukasiak, Maddie and Mackenzie Ziegler, Brooke and Paige Hyland, Kendall Vertes, Nia Frazier, and Vivi-Anne Stein.
I wondered if the stream of successful alums might slow because of this show and all of the distractions that accompany it—I mean, is Abby being this mean just to be the woman you love to hate? But I read recently where one of the alums was quoted as saying it’s too bad they didn’t do the show 15 years ago . . . when she was REALLY mean.
“Dance Moms” is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. For reality TV and its constantly moving camera the picture quality is quite good. There isn’t the soft focus look that can come from the cinematographer struggling to keep up with the action. Colors and black levels are just fine.
The audio, however, is an unimpressive English Dolby Digital 2.0 that’s as ordinary as can be, with no subtitles, so you don’t have the option of silencing some of the star’s rants and just reading what she has to say.
As for bonus features, in addition to some outtakes that are labeled “unaired footage” there’s a lowlight reel of the show’s “Most Outrageous Moments.” Enough said.
Like too many reality shows, “Dance Moms” showcases bad behavior in such a way that it seems to justify or glorify pettiness and churlishness—yet another reflection of how far we’ve slipped on the sociability scale since shock jocks, Internet word-wars and anonymous rants have become a part of everyday life. I can’t stand the show’s surly “star” or the attitude that the tagline expresses—“If you want your daughter to be a star, you have to go through me.”
Yet, I have to grudgingly admit that as reality shows go, this one holds your attention for a while. It’s once you begin to see the same patterns in these people and the same fights surface week after week that you remember you have better things to do with your life.