A few weeks ago, my daughter and I were enjoying our favorite Lifetime Network show, Project Runway. Throughout the program, there were advertisements for a new dance show called, Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition, which stars Abby Lee Miller, the infamous studio director of Dance Moms that airs on the same network. Against my better judgment, I decided to watch it.
In case you've been exiled to Siberia for the past couple of years, Dance Moms is about pushy stage mothers at Abby's Pittsburgh-based dance studio. In their quest to have their child be front and center, have a solo, be number one, the moms often behave in manipulative and verbally abusive ways that could raise the hairs on the back of any Child Protective Service agent's neck. But the real star of the show, which boasts over a million in viewership, is Abby. A large woman with a take no prisoners personality, she believes good dance training must be delivered with a straight shooting, hypercritical approach. After a few viewings of Dance Moms, I swore I'd never watch it again.
Abby's new show has similar moms, kids and premise as Dance Moms--a let's-see-how-much-a-kid-can-take before-breaking-down-into-tears barrel of fun. But the stakes in Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition are much higher than merely winning a trophy from the competition in which the "Dance Moms' students participate each week. The new show, which features twelve kids, ages 6-13, offers its winner $100,000 and the chance to win a scholarship to the Joffrey School of Ballet's summer intensive in New York City. (To be clear, this is not the same Joffrey school that is associated with the professional Joffrey Ballet Company, which is located in Chicago.)
The dysfunction portrayed in both shows hits too close to home for this mother, dance teacher, and studio director. In the numerous articles that feature her tactics, Abby has said that she treats every child as if they were her own. But how would she know? She doesn't have any. Ditto when Abby insists that her hardball approach is necessary for her students to make it in the hard knock life of a professional dancer. But, having never been a professional dancer herself, does she really know what it takes?
Some of us who have been professional dancers and know a little something about what it takes to make it in and out of that profession in one piece are speaking out. Lest any viewer finds enjoyment in Abby's shows because they believe that emotional child abuse is par for course in the quest for the big lights, these tweets from Dancing with The Stars professional, Derek Hough, which can be seen here says it all, "I'm sorry, but this 'Dance Mom' show is straight up abusive. ... Kids Run!!!!!!! It ain't right. Child abuse isn't right. I'm livid right now. ... I believe in discipline and a strong work ethic. But there is nothing productive about screaming and making little girls cry over being on the wrong foot."
While Abby is correct in warning young dancers about, shall we say, difficult directors and situations in the professional world, she is incorrect in how to prepare for them. I know that I went into the professional dance world with a decent reservoir of self-esteem from the uneventful tough love that I had received from my own dance teachers and parents. Sure, my teachers could get testy, and so can I when I feel my students are not dancing to their potential. Exasperation grows when the pressure is high such as when a performance grows near. After all, as their teacher, my reputation is on the line along with theirs.
But then I quickly check myself and remember to keep a tight lid on my own ego. My job is to develop in equal measures my students' talent, skills and self-esteem no matter how their performance goes. They are the stars of the show; I am just one of many in a supporting role helping them to fulfill their dreams.
Airing shows that focus on real youngsters learning their craft in unreal situations is a very bad idea. The pressure of having millions of viewers watching, judging, and criticizing both show's young dancers--who are expected to pick up dances and perform them like a professional at all times-- creates stakes that are too high for everyone involved. The result is an intensely warped environment. The women, most of whom seemingly already had fuses shorter than the bootie shorts on their young dancers, turn into screaming banshees, engulfing the kids and themselves in flames of fury.
All of this heat creates a lethal broth. Combine a perfectionist young girl--which typifies a serious young dancer--with an overbearing mother, a narcissist director, and over exposure, and what do you get? A real-life Natalie Portman character from the dance horror film, Black Swan. I can only imagine how many of Abby's televised students will end up anorexic, "emo", or worse--sicknesses that are already evident in young female dancers even without a weekly exposure of their weaknesses to the world and the public humiliation that goes with it.
Blogs detailing Abby's burning verbal attacks abound such as this one I found, which cites Abby saying: "Are you crying? No tears. You save those tears for your pillow, in your room, alone. You're going to humiliate yourself in front of everyone in this dressing room. Do not cry. Suck it up, kid. You are here, you're healthy, you are one lucky little girl. Act like it."
Lucky girl? I don't think so. The talented young wannabe starlet to whom this was addressed would have a better chance at making it in the professional dance world in one piece if her only teacher was Casper, the friendly ghost. Too bad she doesn't know that the big bad wolf is not something to be feared in her future but is standing right in front of her disguised as a dance teacher.
Yet, Abby's signature long red nails have managed to dig themselves into some who should be able to see behind her facade. The very reputable trade magazine, DanceTeacher, of which I am a regular and usually pleased reader, featured Abby prominently as its cover story in its October, 2012 issue. Although she is arguably the world's most well known dance teacher, it is for all of the wrong reasons. Thankfully, Common Sense Media points out the same when they recently made Abby their third worst role model in The Huffington Post. I still do appreciate all that DanceTeacher magazine offers to my profession and am enormously proud to have been one teacher interviewed in their 2008 Feature: Best of Back-to-School Advice, but their decision to cast Abby as their cover girl gives her tactics credibility while our profession may lose some of its own.
Although Lifetime Network's mission statement doesn't include anything about children, it does say that it is "committed to offering the highest quality entertainment and information programming content that celebrates, entertains and supports women."
Dance Moms and Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition are anything but celebratory and supportive to women and their children. The shows are so deeply offensive to all that I have ever worked towards in my personal and professional life that I am not only boycotting Abby's shows but also all Lifetime shows--including my favorite, Project Runway until Abby is off the air. It's time to save the children whom Abby has not yet caught.
I can only hope that her oft said phrase, "Everyone's replaceable," applies quickly to her. Viewers have been tricked for too long into believing that watching kids getting eaten alive is a treat.