'Dance Moms': Inside the Surprise Hit That's Fueling the 'Bad-Mom TV' Craze
The controversial reality show is netting Lifetime big ratings and younger viewers -- but is it sending the wrong message?
Frazier, who has a doctorate in education, views the conflicts as an opportunity for positive conversation between mothers and daughters. "It's very easy to get caught up in the drama, and that energy can go in a very negative direction," admits the generally levelheaded African American mother, who heatedly confronted Miller after the instructor styled her daughter Nia in a stereotypical afro for her solo performance, "LaQueefa" -- a decision Frazier felt was racially insensitive. "There are so many things you can talk about with your children: how we interact, how to win graciously, how to lose graciously and how to handle a difficult teacher."
The conflict between the show's regulars has incited a fair amount of viewer backlash, including allegations on Dance Moms' Facebook page that the mothers are using their daughters to fulfill their own dreams of celebrity. Jeff Collins, executive producer of the show's production company Collins Avenue Productions, objects to such accusations: "It's disingenuous to say that these moms are exploiting these girls when you can go to Anywhere, USA, and find fathers marching their little boys up and down the football field, screaming at them and banging their heads together."
Another concern is that "these little girls think this is how women should interact with each other," says Sanford. "It's not teaching positive habits to any of the girls and women watching the show."
Frazier admits that at times the show has gotten the better of the group. "Being a mom is not without making wrong judgment calls," she says. "But we're doing our best as mothers, and as mothers of dancers."
To hear Miller tell it, Dance Moms was the brainchild of a recurring conversation she had with the Los Angeles-based dance instructor John Corella. "Every minute of my life was drama, with somebody quitting or moms threatening to," she says. "I would say, 'I'm throwing so-and-so out!' And he'd say, 'No, you invested too much in her kid.' And I would say, 'I don't care. I can't stand that woman.' Then we would say, 'There has to be a reality show about this world.' "
After concocting a rough proposal, Corella took the idea to a casting producer who connected him with the show's eventual co-creator Bryan Stinson. "He didn't create a thing," Miller says, objecting to Stinson's title. "He just took it to Collins Avenue."
Collins maintains that he and Stinson already were looking to develop a competitive dance series when Stinson brought up the concept to Corella. "John said, 'Oh my God! I know the perfect person,' " Collins recalls, before he and Stinson apparently took the idea to Miller. Either way, with Collins Avenue on board, the team began casting the series with the help of Miller's established dance company.
"Hundreds of people submitted themselves [for the casting call]. People were mad they didn't get called for interviews, so they quit my school. Fourteen students. Multiply that by $200 a month for 10 years. That was horrid," says Miller. "The producers kept saying, 'You're going to be so overloaded with kids.' Well, it's not a restaurant. You can't go for a day and take a class. It's a commitment. People come in the door and buy a T-shirt. They're not signing up for 10 months," she complains.
Today, Miller, accustomed to running her own business, believes she doesn't need Collins anymore. "They never even put the kids in a room to dance, they just interviewed them [and their mothers] for more than 19 hours," she says. "I want to get rid of the production company. It's like building a building. Do you need a contractor to hire everybody or can you do it yourself?"
Collins laughs when asked about Miller's comments. "Abby's a dance teacher and I'm a television producer. She knows how to turn out dancers. I know how to make TV. Does that answer your question?"
The one point they do agree on is that networks fought for the rights to Dance Moms, including Bravo, but in the end it was Collins' relationships with Sharenow and reality and original programming senior vice president Gena McCarthy that convinced him Lifetime would be the best home for the series. "Because Lifetime is a women's network, I thought it had the best shot," Collins recalls. "And I had the trust factor with those two. I knew they would let me make the show I wanted. They weren't going to grab hold of the steering wheel and hang on."
Since its July 2011 bow, the series already has spun two offshoots -- Dance Moms: Miami (just 942,000 total viewers in its debut season) and, most recently, Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition, set to premiere Oct. 9. With a third Dance Moms season now confirmed, the network and Collins Avenue Productions will continue to expand the franchise in new cities a la Real Housewives -- and possibly with new competitive formats (read: ice-skating). Says Sharenow: "We want to proceed very cautiously in that arena and feel like we have the kind of breakout characters and instructors that we have in Dance Moms. Abby is an extraordinary reality character that leaps offscreen. She has that rare quality."
Miller has committed her life to all things dance. On the rare occasions she ventures outside her studio, the instructor -- who has never married and has no children of her own -- spends her time taking care of her mother (with whom she lives) and her dog, aptly named Broadway Baby.
Miller, while witnessing yet another mom meltdown during the season's final contest (her driving-and-texting piece, "The Last Text," snagged the top group prize), stands by her adversarial techniques. She declares children today are too coddled by helicopter parenting and that tough lessons are better learned in a safe environment. "My success rate speaks for itself," says the instructor, whose former students have performed on Broadway, competed on Fox's So You Think You Can Dance and landed roles on NBC's Smash and in Warner Bros.' Rock of Ages. "Wouldn't you rather me make your daughter cry about her shoulders then have her go to an audition with 100 other people and then have the choreographer tell you? Aren't you paying for that?" says Miller, admitting, "But I'm not the teacher for everyone."