I still, for the life of me, can’t figure out why anyone would want to be on a reality show. Aside from the ever-present intrusive cameras there’s the daily pressure to be “interesting” or “entertaining,” and in the world of reality TV those are euphemisms for “outrageous” and “combative.” When in doubt? Shout. Throw a tantrum. Pick a fight. Then talk on-camera behind everyone’s back.
“Dance Moms” is no different from the rest, though it’s perhaps a more odious show because the victims—I mean, the girls in the series—are ages eight to 13. Week after week you watch them get teary-eyed as instructor Abby Lee Miller berates them, belittles them, threatens them, and punishes them for the outbursts and actions of their mothers—who square off against each other and Abby Lee like she-bears whose cubs have been threatened. Yet those she-bears bring the cubs right back to that pressure-cooker environment time and again.
Is it the lure of reality TV? Possibly. But because many of the mothers of The Abby Lee Dance Company competition team have been paying for lessons way longer than the show has been on the air—one of them, in fact, took lessons from Miller herself—it’s more likely that winning and success are what’s driving them.
Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi used to say, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” while crusty baseball manager Leo Durocher lived by the philosophy, “Nice guys finish last.” Miller’s version goes something like this: “Second is the first one to lose. You’re the biggest loser on the stage. Next week, you either win big or lose big—but don’t come in second.” Maybe the short-tempered, perfectionist Miller missed her calling. The kind of abuse she heaps on those little girls would seem better directed at a 300-pound lineman who missed a key block or an infielder making $10 million a year who throws to the wrong base.
Miller routinely tells the girls what bad parents their mothers are for not buying into every aspect of her totalitarian program, and she’ll call the children names—both to their faces and to the camera, so the children can later be humiliated all over again when they watch the show on television. “Stupid is as stupid does,” she says of one dancer who had a hard time figuring out a routine. “Tell your mother to knock it off,” she tells another. “She’s going to get you in trouble.” And in fact, this season she puts one of the dancers on probation again, just because of her mother’s antics. “You’re punishing her for something I did,” the mother argues. “BINGO!” Miller snaps back. “There you go!”
“Girls, I don’t need the tears,” she tells the girls after making two of three dancers in a trio cry. “You’re nine, 10 years old!”
“Exactly!” one of the mothers shouts back.
And so it goes. “Everyone forgets that I’ve been doing this for 31 years,” Miller says to the camera in one of the show’s frequent one-on-one interviews. “I produce employable, working dancers, not competition kids.”
But this season she shouts so much that she’s noticeably hoarse much of the time. After the moms question her treatment of the girls, she sputters, “Abby Lee Miller was not put on this earth to make your child feel special!”
Yes, there are trophies week after week, and Miller’s dancers are often national champions. And this is the price that the children and the moms are willing to pay.
For an expensive program—the website doesn’t even list prices—the moms ascend a staircase to a small waiting room above the studio to watch through a window and, sitting on carpeted bleachers, tear into each other. At one point the mom who works for free at the front desk so her daughters will get preferential treatment—and, in fact, Miller clearly favors Maddie and McKenzie over the others—says, following a heated exchange in the mom’s gallery, “I think we should all stop watching, because it’s really hard listening to everybody bitch.”
Lady, I feel your pain. That’s exactly how I felt watching this series from my living room. The shouting, the abuse, the bitching, the conniving, the uncivil behavior week after week grows tiresome—although I have to admit that two of the moms, Kelly and Christi, come up with some behind-her-back zingers directed at Miller. When they watch Miller try to show the dancers a sexy pose, one of them quips, “And, that explains why she’s single.” When new mom Jill, who tries to bribe Miller by installing a bench between the front doors and paying for massages for Miller and her choreographer, as the moms hear of it one of them says, “That poor masseusse.” Miller, you see, is a very large woman who shrieks like a fishwife.
There are moments when Miller shows emotion, but again those moments are brought about by her two favorites, not by the other girls who work just as hard. And I’m with Holly, the only mom with a Ph.D., who says, “I think you can help children take ownership of their mistakes without belittling them.” The one with the most education is also the mom who shows the most restraint.
As with sports, at first it’s tough to tell the players without a scorecard. But it doesn’t take long to get their names and relationships down, because the dynamics week after week are so predictable. Miller has this pyramid where the dancer atop the pyramid each week gets a solo and leads the competition team into “battle” at their next competition. How desperate are these people to compete? Well, after a planned competition is cancelled the night before they were to take off, they track down one in faraway Texas and show up there to take all the awards. Melissa is a mom who may or may not be engaged (this is the cause of some badgering and snarky behavior on the part of the moms), who says nary a bad word about Abby Lee and her methods; as a result, Maddie, her oldest, is Miller’s darling, and her tiny sister comes on this year to win a number of junior solo competitions and also become a favorite.
Then there’s new mom Jill, who has a history of switching schools and who tries to buy Miller’s favor, but breaks Miller’s cardinal rule of not griping and not interrupting her during a rehearsal by insisting that her daughter get more of the spotlight. Blonde mom Christi is as quick-tempered as Miller and ready to mix it up with anyone; her daughter, Chloe, competes with Maddie week after week for the top of the pyramid. Then there’s Kelly, whose oldest daughter, Brooke, infuriates Abby Lee this season by dropping out briefly to give cheerleading a try, and whose youngest daughter, Paige, seems to be one of Miller’s whipping girls. The other is Nia, an African American whose mother works as a principal. Hilariously, Abby Lee demands that Holly take off work and “be here” for her daughter all the time—even though “being here” usually means just being called out on the rehearsal floor for the unveiling of the weekly pyramid and numbers for the upcoming competition, then being “dismissed” to the gallery.
But what smacks, this season, of ratings manipulation is a sideplot featuring a mom who came to Abby Lee with her daughter last season but left to start her own dance studio again. The Candy Apples become Abby Lee’s nemesis, though the rival instructor, Cathy, calls it a “nemis.” When one of the moms finally gets fed up and leaves, is it coincidence that, of all the other dance companies she could have gone to in Pittsburgh, where The Abby Lee Dance Company is located, instead she drives to Ohio to take her daughter to The Candy Apples. Yeah, I’m buying it.
My wife and daughter love this show, but I found the second season much harder to take than the first—simply because it all gets very old, and very tiresome.
This season is split up into two installments, both available on January 8. “Dance Moms: Season 2, Vol. 1” features the first 12 episodes, while “Dance Moms: Season 2, Vol. 2 contains the final 13 episodes. Total runtime is 522 minutes for Vol. 1 and 564 minutes for Vol. 2, which are sold separately.
“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, and the stage performances are well captured.
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. Subtitles are in Spanish and English SDH.
There are 14 mini-features on the first volume, the most interesting of which are house tours that each Dance Mom gives of their humble abodes. After watching them week after week it’s nice to see where and how they live, and it confirms what we suspected: the primacy of dance in their households. Also included on Volume 1 is an episode of “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition.”
Ten mini-features appear on the second volume, with the bonus features that most fans will gravitate toward being a reunion show aired in two parts. These have become standard issue for reality shows like the “Real Housewives” series, and a host tries to stir things up all over again by showing clips and then getting the women to comment. It’s really more of the same: defend, attack; attack, defend. And shout.
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.” Dance and dance competitions take a back seat to all the bickering and shouting. And that’s too bad. Even more than the first season, this one gets old fast—unless you actually LIKE reality-show bickering and backbiting.