When Lifetime’s reality show, Dance Moms, hit the airwaves, it was a bit like watching home movies. You see, I grew up in dance studios. From the age of four until adulthood, dance was so important to me that as a teen, I quit the cheerleading squad when it interfered with classes and performances. This was a big deal because cheerleaders could date anyone they wanted. My classmates called me “crazy.”
While our dance group was rarely in competitions like the kids on Dance Moms, we had plenty of high stakes fights and competitiveness. We performed regularly in my city and frequently on local television, and our troop was well-known in town.
Our mothers didn’t bicker openly like the women on Dance Moms, but some of them egged their daughters on to get a coveted front row spot or a promotion to a more advanced group. I’m told that one mom promised her daughter money for mastering the splits.
The competition among the children often got nasty. When I was six years old, I was allowed to skip a year and advance into a group of girls who were two years older than me. Most of them hated me at first. When I was asked to demonstrate some steps, two of them turned up their noses in disgust.
Our teacher – I’ll call her Pauline – was not quite the terror that is Dance Moms’ Abby Lee Miller, but she was known for bringing little girls to tears. One day, she might declare you her best dancer, but the next, you could just as easily be declared her worst. She never minced words, and appearance was very important to her. When I was an awkward teen, she openly told me I looked fat, and she insisted that our teenage busts were regularly padded with what we called “falsies” back then.
Few of the parents defended their children or told Pauline how they truly felt. Instead, they complained about her at home but kept their kids in her school because the performance opportunities were so great.
By the time I was 15, I developed the chutzpah to speak up to my teacher when I felt she was out of line. That year, we were set to dance in our state’s Miss America preliminary pageant, backing up the featured singers. One of our numbers was to the song, Puppet Man (originally recorded by Tom Jones). A horizontal bar was lowered toward the stage above our heads with elastics hanging down. Each elastic had a loop at the end that we put around our wrists and ankles to make us look like puppets while we danced. The pageant lasted for three nights, and we performed the number every night in shiny green shorts with Pinocchio suspenders.
We had no understudies; if anyone became injured or sick, a set of those elastics would have had to be removed.
The first night, there was an after-party, and Pauline disliked the dress I had brought to wear. “Are you going to the party?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Not in that, you’re not.”
My mother had made the dress for me but stood there silently. I’m sure she felt hurt, and I was deeply offended.
“Okay, well, maybe I just won’t come back tomorrow night,” I countered.
Visions of empty elastic loops dangling puppet-less on stage must have given Pauline nightmares all night. The first thing she asked when she arrived at the theater the next day was, “Is Melanie here?” Her voice was syrupy sweet.
Now, don’t get me wrong; watching Dance Moms hasn’t exactly given me traumatic flashbacks. Sure, I came close to quitting dance school plenty of times, but the truth is that I wanted to stay. By the time I was 16, I was teaching, and I even ran the studio for a few weeks. It was a great experience. And despite the difficulties, we loved our teacher. I had a unique childhood, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. I’m not even sure who I’d be today without those experiences.
Still, if I had a child, I don’t think I would make the same decision as my parents. Dance requires sacrifice, but pointless drama shouldn’t be part of the package. And while I know enough about reality TV to know that some of the fights on Dance Moms are probably manufactured and intensified for audiences, I would be hard pressed to put my child through working with teachers like the ones on the show. I also wouldn’t make my child’s dance career so important that it led me to fight needlessly with the other parents. What a poor example to set for your kids.
Surely, there are skilled professionals who maintain a disciplined but balanced and positive atmosphere at their studios. Dance requires hard work, but the emotional costs should not rob children of a psychologically healthy childhood.
So, the offshoot is that I can’t really watch Dance Moms. The kids are excellent dancers, but the backstage dramas are a little too real for me. I’ll stick with So You Think You Can Dance.