There's an old saying that children should be seen, not heard. It's a saying Lifetime's Dance Moms takes seriously even today.
The kids here—the young dancers in the Abby Lee Dance Company—are seen a lot. They leap and writhe and twist and twirl in practice and onstage. They spring up and collect awards. They stand around and look uncomfortable as instructor Abby Lee Miller harangues them for a missed pirouette or a slipped step. They look on in horror as their mothers point fingers and fling bottles of water. Sometimes they quietly cry—mute tears trickling down their cheeks, sweeping away cake makeup and leaving channels of unrouged skin behind.
We do hear them speak occasionally, but far less often than we hear from their histrionic mothers and Miss Abby herself. And perhaps the girls' wary silence says more about this show than all the shouting and screaming and swearing done by their loving caretakers.
Dance Moms is designed to be a cringe-inducing disaster. We're supposed to be aghast at some of Abby Lee's drill sergeant techniques. We're urged to roll our eyes at the mothers' helicopter twirls. Why, if it wasn't for that, Dance Moms would be about, well, dancing. And as good as these girls are at the craft, Lifetime requires more talon-to-the-jugular drama from its reality shows. This is a channel that boasts made-for-TV movies like Lizzie Borden Took an Ax and the scripted series Devious Maids (promotional images of which feature a blood-soaked mop). Lifetime doesn't dabble in nuance. No, the drama here has to be as oversized as these dancers are petite—each episode a searing study in discomforting verbal abuse.
This is not to say that the characters (and I say characters because reality on many reality shows is a flighty thing) mean to be abusive. In 2011, Abby told TV Guide that the girls in her charge hope to turn professional one day. "I need to be tough," she said. "I can't mince words. I can't sugarcoat it. I want them to be prepared when they get to New York and go to an audition. If you want someone to say, 'She's so sweet and she's so cute and, honey, point your foot,' that's not my school. You can go to the YMCA and have a nobody teach your kid if that's what you want to hear."
The mothers, too, want what they believe is best for their children—even if it means tearing down another kid to get to it. They rise to their daughters' defenses like overly caffeinated mama bears, doing what they can to protect both honor and psyche. Never mind, they might tell us, that at other times they seem to personally tear down these very same things.
It is in this arena that we, of course, observe the show's most overt problems. Abby shouts at her young charges. Abby shouts at the mothers. The mothers shout at Abby. The mothers shout at one another. Profanity frequently pockmarks the proceedings, and even violent confrontation (in the form of angry fingers to chests or thrown drinks or petulant pushes) is not unheard of.
And then there's Abby's overwhelming desire to help her pupils stand out onstage—which often means dressing her girls (all of whom are 16 or under) in provocative outfits and teaching them sexually suggestive, sensual moves. (In a 2012 episode, Abby dressed the girls up as Vegas-style showgirls, complete with flesh-colored bras to make it look like they're topless. The ensuing outcry forced Lifetime to remove the episode from its website.)
And so we're back to the juvenile behavior emanating from Dance Moms' phalanx of adults. The infighting and backbiting here feels akin to imperial power struggles in the Roman Empire, not a teen and tween dance troupe. In each episode, Abby ranks the girls on a pyramid scheme—who's performing well, who's coasting, who's failing miserably. It's a brutal metaphor for the show's overall cutthroat ethos—and a device that even Abby doesn't seem to like. "That has nothing to do with me," she told TV Guide. "That's the show. They came up with that whole process."
Those antics made Dance Moms one of Lifetime's rare hits, but it makes it hard to watch and impossible to excuse. It's particularly hard because the children are depicted as children. From what I can see, these girls love and care for their peers. They love their moms. They respect Abby and her skills. And mostly, they just want to perform their best—for Abby, for their moms and for themselves. They don't want to disappoint.
And so they watch and listen to the barbs and arrows thrown by the adults in the room. They keep their mouths shut until it comes time to do what they love to do: dance. Perhaps, as Abby says, they dream of a day when they'll dance professionally, on Broadway or elsewhere—and have enough money to pay for the psychiatry sessions they'll most likely be in need of.
"Welcome Back … Now Don't Get Too Comfortable"
Fresh off a national victory, Abby announces she's holding coast-to-coast tryouts for new blood for the team. "Everyone's replaceable," she tells the girls menacingly.
"Can't we have just a nice start to the season?" mom Holly asks herself. But no, they can't—not if the season's televised on cable TV.
Abby publicly rips Brooke for missing class time. "I don't think Brooke wants to do this dance," she says. "What do you think, girls?" The girls stare uncomfortably. She mocks Brooke for covering her crotch when she's being scolded, saying it looks as though she just "peed your pants." When Payton starts to cry (ostensibly because part of her costume is hurting her), Abby snaps, "Stop acting like a baby. You're 16 years old and everybody's watching you cry." Etcetera. Abby repeatedly denigrates the girls in front of their teammates, insults them to their mothers and is horrified that the troupe only took home a third-place group trophy. "This team failed," she snaps.
Moms bicker and fight. "I'll put my daughter up against your daughter every day of the week," says Leslie (Payton's mom). We see flashbacks to a moment in the previous season when Leslie and Christi got into a physical fight in New Orleans. We hear women say "a‑‑" and "b‑‑ch." Girls wear formfitting outfits and dance gear that bares midriff and legs. They perform sensuous dance routines.