Written by Mollie Goldberg
Edited by Amara Channer
Recently I asked my mom if I could borrow her copy of Gone Girl so I could prepare for the movie but she told me not to bother. She warned, “Mollie, none of the characters have any redeeming qualities! Usually there’s at least one person I like….but I hated every single person in that book!”That basically sums up how I feel about TLC’s Dance Moms: Everyone is terrible and I hate them all.
Okay…so that’s a bit of a stretch. It’s hard to hate the kids because they’re…well, kids. But since this show is called Dance Moms, I think it’s fair to say all these moms are terrible. If you’ve never had the privilege of watching this show, let me give a quick recap of what you’re missing. Abby Lee Miller is a Pittsburgh based choreographer and owner of the Abby Lee Dance Company in which six little girls under the age of twelve train and around which the show revolves. Their mothers sold their businesses and quit their high-powered jobs (one even has a PhD) to spend the majority of their time in a viewing deck above the rehearsal space arguing, trash talking, and rhinestone-ing training bras. Most of them are overtly awful people, or they’re just awful for allowing their daughters to endure the madness that is the Abby Lee Dance Company. Every week, Abby, the moms, and the girls go to a different dance competition and Abby puts the girls on a pyramid, with the most disappointing dancers from the last week at bottom and the best ones at the top. All of this done in front of these little girls. And every episode, there’s one thing I know for sure: regardless of how well the girls do, there will be screaming in the dressing room.
Normally I’d be the first person to say reality television is amazing and the scripted reality haters can suck it! The problem with Dance Moms, or really any reality show whose main focus is children, is that these kids are at an age where they are incredibly impressionable. On a show like Real Housewives or The Real World, the characters are adults (in age at least) who have had their childhoods and self esteem untouched by a camera crew and producers. But to these girls, every snide comment, every dig, every time Abby screams at them or their mothers– it’s real. Regardless of whether the producers inform them of the scriptedness, you can’t convince me that telling an eight year-old she’s “stupid”for forgetting a dance routine doesn’t affect that child’s view of herself. If Abby Lee Miller were a licensed educator, she’d probably be fired. This show is on its fifth season now. Why do we allow this to continue? It seems like glorified psychological abuse under the guise of entertainment. In one episode, the girls are in Los Angeles auditioning for a pop music video. Being the youngest and smallest in the group, six year-old Mackenzie gets upset because she can’t keep up with the choreography and runs to her mother, who takes her to the bathroom to be alone. As soon as they enter the bathroom, Mackenzie bursts into tears from the stress. Then, suddenly, she notices the cameraman hiding in the bathroom stall. She points directly at the camera and, humiliated, hides her face and tries to run out. Rather than accept that her daughter isn’t ready, her mother says, “you’re not a baby and I’m not dealing with this anymore,”leaving her to cry. Except, for all intents and purposes, this six year-old is very much still a baby. In another episode, Abby puts ten year-old Kendall on dance probation after what I thought was a great performance and berates her with every little thing she does wrong in her routines, purely to piss off her short-fused mother. Kendall obviously bursts into tears, which angers her mother Jill even more. Abby then says, “I’m not surprised by Jill’s reaction. But I am surprised by Kendall’s. I don’t wake up in the morning hoping to make a little girl cry.”I’m not sure that I believe her. If she knows putting Kendall on the chopping block will incite a reaction from her mother that is no doubt the goal of the producers, why wouldn’t she? More drama means more ratings means more money. All at the expense of a little girl’s self-value.
One of the biggest sources of drama on the show is the competition between star Maddie and the other girls, especially notoriously second place Chloe. I love a good rivalry on shows like The Real World or The Bachelor(ette). Watching adults who know they’re getting paid to stir up drama is incredibly entertaining. Dance Moms seeks to pit these girls against each other in order to make the moms outraged enough to cause drama that the viewers love. Week after week, as Maddie consistently received special treatment and found herself at the top of the pyramid, a system I discovered was the producers’idea rather than a system Abby ever used, I found myself rooting for Chloe and resenting Maddie. I’m 22 years old and I’m wishing failure on a nine year-old. This is not something I should ever be doing, especially in a time when women are pitted against one another all the time. Maddie is not only just a kid, but a pretty good one too. When she does lose, she’s happy for the other girls, saying “everyone should get to win.”I find it awful and, yet, somewhat impressive that a show can make adults who should certainly know better (myself included) spiteful towards tiny child dancers.
While screaming fits and jealousy were things I expected from this show, I was not prepared for the blatant racism. Of the six main dancers the show focuses on, only one, Nia, is black. She’s not often chosen for solos and finds herself at the bottom of the pyramid a lot. However, the first time we see Nia get a solo, she’s dancing to a song by a black drag queen called “They Call Me Laquifa,”in a fake afro and animal print. Abby then refers to the gyrating, afro fluffing routine as having “come from a heritage.”It’s enough to make you rip your face off. When the girls go to LA, they get to meet the queen behind LaQuifa, Shangela, whose song they’re using in competition. She teaches Nia how to do the “death drop,”a dance move in which the dancer flops backward onto the floor and it appears they’ve been hurt. It’s a cool move but for Abby to make the assumption that only Nia needs to learn it is insulting and otherizing. When Nia begins her death drop routine, Abby explains that Nia was the only one who could do it because she’s a “black diva.”If you watch this kid on the show, she’s anything but a diva. She’s quiet and passive aggressive. Throughout the season, Abby treats her as the token “ethnic”dancer that covers one more base for her to win titles. Except of course when Nia wants to express her blackness with thick braids. Then Abby tells her, to her face, that they’re “horrible.”So, being “ethnic”is only okay when it comes to winning trophies for the ALDC, but not when it comes to this girl’s identity.
By the time I reached episode 11, I felt like I had probably seen enough. Growing up in community theatre, I thought I had seen the worst of “show moms.”But this was a whole other level of complete disregard for a child’s welfare. Yes, the Abby Lee Dance Company is a big name in the industry and can take these girls places. But after five seasons, haven’t these moms seen themselves and their children’s lives on TV and thought, “this isn’t good?”I can truly see some of these girls going on to project their treatment onto their own children, just as Abby, who was once a dancer herself but at age ten “realized [her] talents were more useful in choreography”(aka wasn’t good enough for her choreographer mother), projects her insecurity onto them.