'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?
This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It's 4 p.m. on July 13, and after a day of intense rehearsals, the young dancers of Lifetime's reality series Dance Moms are dirty, bruised and drained, a stark contrast to their usual makeup-caked faces and often provocative glitzy costumes. Sequestered in one corner of the low-budget dance space in Burbank, Calif., the show's five stage moms are on their best behavior, save for occasional gasps during a complicated tumble sequence. But that can't erase from recent memory the usual antics of this pack of maternal she-wolves, among whom catfights, insults and shriek fests are as common as their daughters' BeDazzled clothing. There was one incident earlier this year where one mom, Christi Lukasiak, allegedly attempted to choke the instructor of a competing dance team.
"They're rude," complains choreographer and series star Abby Lee Miller of the mothers. "It's an honor to be asked to sit in here." Miller has brought the group from Pittsburgh to compete in the Energy Dance competition, one of many competitive dancing events that result in prestigious national titles and an array of trophies. "It's like, 'Shut up!' They're so ungrateful. They're so 'me, me, me' and 'what I want' and 'what I need.' They're very selfish." Plus, "when a mother says the F word and the kids don't even blink, that scares me. Because what are they hearing at home?"
The larger-than-life Miller is the heart, soul and center of Dance Moms, now just wrapping its second season. A surprise hit for Lifetime with a season average of 2.2 million total viewers, the series also has a median viewership age of 32, far younger than the network's average of 48.
"It's a very young-skewing show for us," says Lifetime's executive vice president of programming Rob Sharenow, "and we're bringing in a lot of new viewers" -- as proven by the fact that season two outdelivered the first by 71 percent among adults 18 to 49. In fact, Lifetime has gone from being No. 17 among cable networks in early 2011 to ranking in the top 10, largely due to Dance Moms, which was brought on as part of an overall brand shift. Since assuming Lifetime oversight in May 2010, then network president and general manager Nancy Dubuc -- now president of entertainment and media at A&E Television Networks -- has populated the network with a brand of in-your-face (and, at times, controversial) reality fare, including Bristol Palin: Life's a Tripp and the upcoming The Houstons: On Our Own, that dominates rival networks Bravo and TLC. The move is paying off: The former "women in peril" movie network is generating a steady 8 percent increase in 2012 advertising revenues, totaling $322.6 million, and earning more in its first three quarters than in all of 2011, according to SNL Kagan.
"Dance Moms started as a very low-profile, quiet show that wasn't marketed in any loud way," explains Sharenow. "Every week it grew and grew, and now it's achieved this unprecedented level of success that brought it to an iconic level."
Part of the show's first-season growth came from intense word-of-mouth about Miller and her controversial teaching practices, which include subjecting students to a weekly pyramid of best to worst dancers and routinely referring to the girls as "stupid" and telling them to "suck it up." With bad-mom TV a burgeoning genre (see: Toddlers & Tiaras, Teen Mom and, of course, more recently, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo), the show delivers numerous examples of poor parenting, from dance mom Kelly Hyland drinking in front of her two daughters to the mothers endorsing the risque getups of "topless" showgirl outfits and the occasional gun as prop. And in the fortysomething Miller (who declines to give her exact age), the show delivers a teacher who embodies the audience's own shock and disgust -- all while creating her own entertainment.
The series follows seven girls in the world of competitive dance, with the mince-no-words Miller -- who started her own dance company at 14, when she decided to forgo dancing and focus on choreography -- creating such eyebrow-raising performances as a plastic surgery-themed routine that had the girls rolling around in flesh-colored costumes complete with sewn-on surgical scars, and a social-commentary piece on texting and driving that had dancers tumbling from a prop car and attempting to revive a seemingly lifeless 8-year-old. All of this occurs while Miller demands perfection from her tiny dancers and obedience from their overbearing mothers.
"It makes people feel better about their own lives," says Amy Aldridge Sanford, Ph.D., chair of the communications department -- and teacher of a course on reality television -- at Northeastern State University in Talaqua, Okla. "Some people just like the train-wreck element of it. They just can't look away. And some people just want to learn more about fellow humans, especially if we don't live that life."
The series even earned a degree of pop-culture cachet when last year Christina Ricci told Jimmy Fallon on Late Night that she weathered Hurricane Irene by holing up in her New York apartment with a Dance Moms marathon. Ricci insisted, "It's the greatest reality show of all time."
With nearly 1.5 million collective Twitter followers, these five Midwestern moms and their seven daughters -- Hyland and her daughters Brooke, 14, and Paige, 11; Melissa Gisoni and daughters Mackenzie Ziegler, 8, and Madison Ziegler, 10; Jill Vertes and daughter Kendall, 9; Holly Frazier and daughter Nia, 11; and Lukasiak and daughter Chloe, 11 -- have cultivated an overwhelming social media presence, complete with shameless plugs for in-store meet-and-greets and ticketed performances by the young stars. Lukasiak alone has racked up more than 217,000 followers (in contrast, two-time Emmy winner Julie Bowen of Modern Family has just 165,000), a testament to her high meltdown quotient. During a now infamous season-one freak-out, Lukasiak shrieked at Gisoni, "How many times has my daughter beat your daughter?" All of the children were still in the room.
The girls themselves seem to brush off the chaos and instead bask in the bit of hometown fame the series has provided. "It's really cool seeing ourselves on TV, but after a few minutes it gets boring because we know what happens," says Kendall, who dreams of being in a Broadway production of Hairspray. Seconds Brooke: "I like the episodes where they just show the dancing. I skip through all the moms' parts."
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."