If you’re like me, you’re dancing as fast as you can: running a business, taking care of a family, trying to find time to take care of yourself. “Free time” is relished for reading and writing and just a handful of beloved television programs. In my case, American Horror, Downton Abbey, Treme, and Glee; I set our digital DVR to record them because my schedule and the networks’ rarely line up.
Sometimes, however, I need to just take a break, to “veg,” or, as my teenage daughter might say, “to chillax.” The couch beckons; I pull out the remote and run through the channels until I land on something utterly mindless.
For the past several weeks, my TV tranquilizer of choice has been Lifetime’s Dance Moms. Before you think less of me, let me assure you that I have a long, fairly legitimate relationship to dance.
Growing up in the ’70s, my sister and I studied under the strict tutelage of Barbara Fallis, former New York City Ballet soloist and mother of Richard (John-Boy Walton) Thomas. Her school was a serious place, and we dutifully showed up each session in our pale pink tights and black leotards, hair pulled back in an unshakable bun. Soon it became apparent that I wasn’t going to have a career in ballet, so I turned away from the barre and moved into musical theater. In college, I took so many studio classes that I qualified for a minor in dance. Today, I still enjoy a good Zumba class.
A girly-girl of the pinkest hue, my daughter was an accomplished twirler at an early age. When she was four, I enrolled her in the local dance school. One afternoon a week, her nanny would drop her off and I’d head home from work early enough to pick her up (and, if I was lucky, catch the last few minutes of the class from the parent viewing area). She stayed in the dance school three years, which meant three separate recitals. We still have the costumes: a sweet pink and green fairy the first year; bright purple velvet and sequins the second; and silver lamé with pink feathers the third. All things come to an end, however, and by the time she was seven, she’d abandoned dance for horseback riding. In a way, I was sorry to see her stop.
That’s why a television show with the word “Dance” in the title might not be so bad. Indeed, the young stars are incredibly talented, and as dedicated as any professional adult. They work hard (in fact, after learning one, two, or three new routines each week, I don’t think they have any time to do homework or even attend school). They are good sports one and all. Happy for each other, proud when they succeed, devastated when they don’t. In the last ten minutes of each episode, we get to see exquisite performances from Maddie, Chloe, Brooke, Asia, Paige, Kendall, and Nia (note the conspicuous absence of any Marys, Janes, or Susans).
No, the problem with Dance Moms isn’t the “Dance” part. It’s the “Moms” part. Each week we see mothers behaving badly—really, really badly. These women are petty, jealous and, in some cases apparently, alcoholics. They throw world-class hissy fits, and two of them had a cat-fight on the streets of New Orleans when the team was there for Nationals. As a mom myself, it pains me to watch these women put their own exhibitionism ahead of their child’s welfare. Each will do anything to buy her way into Abby’s good graces.
This brings us to the real star of the show, one Abby Lee Miller, a dance diva of enormous proportions. (Literally. She is extremely overweight, in sharp contrast to her lithe young protégées.) Abby runs a now famous (or infamous) dance school in Pittsburgh. She is demanding, temperamental, and award-obsessed. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will get in the way of her beating the school’s dreaded nemesis, Ohio’s Candy Apple’s Dance Center. The girls adore and fear her in equal measure. Each week, she builds a pyramid, taping the dancers’ headshots to the studio mirror in a pecking order that dictates which girl gets a solo, which gets stuck in the back of a group number. Under Abby’s tutelage, the girls are in tears as often as they’re in toe shoes. The pressure is tremendous, unreasonable, and age-inappropriate.
I’ve also never understood the dance-as-competition concept. Dance, in my mind, is an art form. Of course, the world of professional dance is highly competitive. But the prize is a sold-out performance, critical acclaim, and contracts with world-class dance companies. These girls (and these competitions across the country) seem to blur the line between art and sport. It isn’t about the movement or the music as much as the four-foot-high trophy.
Between first-run episodes, repeat broadcasts, and video on-demand, Dance Moms is always on. And successful reality shows beget faster than Bible patriarchs. So now we have Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, a show along the lines of American Idol. Girls (and a handful of short-lived boys) compete for $100,000 and a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School. If possible, the show is even worse. Again, it’s not the young dancers; it’s the mothers. There are high stakes, and only one “ultimate dancer” winner. These women are ruthless, pushing their own offspring to the point of collapse and sabotaging the other children. Remember, they are accomplished dancers, but they are still kids.
With both shows, the real issue is the welfare of these kids. Tarted up like Toddlers & Tiaras, the girls wear costumes and perform choreography that are often too sexy for their ages. Although they clearly love to dance, the pressure seems particularly cruel. As in any reality show, there are cameras on them seemingly at all times: through grueling rehearsals, supporting each other in the wings, elated by a win, terrified because they forgot a number, exhausted from all the practice and travel. Apparently child labor laws don’t apply here.
When it comes to supporting progressive businesses (and protesting those that are not), we vote with our pocketbooks. With television shows, we vote with our eyeballs. So, it’s decided: I will stop watching. I really will. Really. As soon as I find out whether Abby Lee Dance Studio beat Candy Apple’s, and who took first place for overall junior solo: Maddie or Chloe.