Sorting the Reality From the Reality TV With Abby Lee Miller

Abby Lee Miller at Reign Dance Productions in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo by Matthew Murphy

“Girls, you're wearing two-piece costumes. Either sit down and do a hundred sit-ups, or paint the abs on. One or the other. Let's go," barks Abby Lee Miller to five dance students ages 6–13, dressed scantily in bra tops, booty shorts and knee-high stockings, as their mothers look on in horror. “Dance Moms" is the kind of guilty pleasure that the viewing public has come to expect from reality television: overly emotional studio parents who sip cocktails and pick fights; talented kids who light up the screen with their cute quips and stellar dancing; and Abby Lee Miller herself, the studio owner with the big mouth and iron fist. When she saunters into a room, the kids sit up straighter, the moms exchange looks and tension levels rise.

Outside of her television persona, Miller is a successful businesswoman and dance teacher. She's owned Reign Dance Productions (formerly Maryen Lorrain Dance Studio) in Pittsburgh since 1992. Her students have been earning national recognition for decades, and they hold top titles at events such as Dance Masters of America and Dance Educators of America. Abby Lee Dance Company alumni have graced professional stages from Broadway to “So You Think You Can Dance." In the summer of 2011, Miller took the spotlight herself, flinging herself into national celebrity—and scrutiny—as the dance teacher other dance teachers love to hate.

But love her or hate her, Miller is unapologetic about who she is. “At the end of the day, I know I'm doing something good—I've made kids better and stronger and brought them closer to fulfilling their dreams," she says. “There are more kids dancing because of this show, and that was my goal from the start."

Miller's path to becoming the best known dance teacher on television began as a 13-year-old dance student. Already a go-getter, she told her mother, who started the Maryen Lorrain Dance Studio in 1946, that she wanted to enter choreography into a competition. Miller taught a trio to three girlfriends from her dance class, and it won first place. She then got permission to assemble a dozen of the studio's younger dancers as the Abby Lee Dance Company. It wasn't long before even older dancers were begging to be part of the team. “I realized very quickly that if I wanted to be a choreographer, I needed to train the dancers to look good doing my work," says Miller. She began teaching technique classes shortly after, taking on more studio responsibility over the years.

At 26, she took the reins as studio owner and worked with her mother to move the school to a new location. This space is the one you see on TV: three studios plus an observation loft. Today, she employs eight teachers and estimates that she's taught between 3,000 and 4,000 students throughout her career, both competitive and recreational.

One of the biggest misconceptions about “Dance Moms" is that Miller's only goal is winning competitions. In reality, she prefers to attend conventions, where the focus is on education.

“It never felt like a competition studio," says Mark Myars, an ALDC alumnus who's currently a dance supervisor for Broadway's Wicked. “The main focus was taking classes and getting to know teachers and choreographers at conventions across the country. Two Broadway shows I've done, Footloose and 9 to 5, have been with choreographers I met with Abby as a teenager."

Miller says one of her proudest moments was seeing Myars in opening night of Footloose. She prides herself on the relationships she maintains with her former students. In fact, it was her frequent conversations with close friend and professional dancer John Corella that led to the creation of “Dance Moms." “Every day I would call him and say, 'I can't take these mothers anymore,'" she says. “Unbeknownst to me, he was taking notes." Corella took the idea for a reality show to a casting director. They shopped the show to a production company and Lifetime picked it up.

After just two seasons, the “Dance Moms" franchise—which now includes spin-off “Dance Moms: Miami"—has become one of Lifetime's most-watched, boasting close to 200 million viewers since its premiere. A new show, “Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition," premieres this fall.

“Abby has always had a star quality," says R.J. Mitchell, associate director of Rolann's School of the Dance in Longwood, Florida, who's been close friends with Miller for more than two decades. “She's taken control of every room she walks into, even at competition. That's just the kind of person she is."

Keeping up with her business while filming 30 hours a week is no picnic, but Miller is still running her studio, with the help of two assistants, a bookkeeper and her trusted faculty members. She's often in the makeup chair at 7 am, and group filming begins after school in the afternoon. Scheduled classes and rehearsals take priority on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the majority of taping reserved for Wednesdays and Thursdays. Some days there just isn't enough time and the “Dance Moms" cast has to rehearse late into the night. But the show comes with serious perks for her business: During shooting, production pays the studio rent and a portion of utilities.

Miller tries not to let the show affect her studio business, but the notoriety has had an impact. A few families left the studio when the show began. “We have a lot more people who stop by to take pictures and buy T-shirts than to sign up for classes," she says. Most of all, fans want to meet the star of the show and see how she compares to her on-screen personality.

She stands by the fact that what you see on the show is what you get. “There's nothing about my personality that's contrived or made up. But if I get angry, you don't see what led up to it," says Miller, who has been known to blow up over things as minor as a child's messy hair. “Nobody in TV land heard me tell her 127 times to get her hair up. The first time, I was very nice, but by the time you see it on the show, I'm ready to explode."

“She treats every kid as if they were her own," says Gianna Martello, Miller's assistant and ALDC alum. “She was mean at times, but it was only because she wanted the best for us. The kids who danced for Abby were the ones who wanted to be pushed; we wanted that tough love."

Nevertheless, the Abby Lee Miller you see on TV isn't the whole picture. “It's not real life. It's for entertainment value," says Gary Pate, founder of Starpower Talent Competition, who has hosted “Dance Moms" at his events. “She's always been a tough cookie, but on the show she's portraying a character. People don't want to watch a goody-two-shoes dance teacher. They want to see dysfunction."

Maybe most controversial on “Dance Moms" is The Pyramid, Miller's ranking of her students, a concept that was created for the show and starts off most episodes. She places photos of each of the featured dancers on the mirror—the ones who did poorly at last week's competition at the bottom and the ones who did the best (and will probably get solos this week) at the top. Though it's been criticized for pitting students against one another and showing favoritism, Miller likes it. “Every teacher has a pyramid in her head," she says. “Plus, those 8 x 10s on that pyramid meant that everyone watching knew all the kids' names instantly."

The other big deviation from her normal routine is going to a new competition every week, a feat that no teacher would attempt. The show attends competitions instead of conventions, because the filming releases and copyright issues are too cumbersome for large events with classes.

Pate says Starpower registration numbers have increased due to the number of studios that come with the explicit goal of beating the ALDC. “When her kids arrive, there are always thousands of adoring fans waiting at the bus," says Pate. “And as they walk into the theater, every person in the audience stands up to cheer for them."

“It's like we're The Beatles," Miller jokes.

Of course, many adults are often less friendly, and she's been criticized in the press and on social media, particularly about her strict methods with students. “Dancing with the Stars" pros Derek Hough and Mark Ballas spoke out on their Twitter accounts against Miller. “This 'Dance Moms' show is straight up abusive," said Hough. “[There's] nothing productive about screaming and making little girls cry over being on the wrong foot." Actress Katherine Heigl blogged, “I was horrified by the way [Miller] spoke to [students] when she felt they weren't up to snuff. It was demeaning, belittling and downright unkind."

As a close friend, Mitchell says the backlash has been painful for Miller. “It's been difficult for her since the show started," she says. “There's a portion of the dance community that thinks this is the worst thing that ever happened to dance teachers. A lot of her friends and colleagues have turned on her because of it. But she's a good person."

Miller puts on a brave face, saying she generally doesn't even notice the well-publicized put-downs. “When celebrities say they never watch or read stuff about themselves, I believe it," she says. “Keeping up with it is so time-consuming."

In fact, Miller rarely has time to even watch the show. When she does, the parents' interviews shock her more than the way she's portrayed. “They're ruthless," she says, an ironic comment considering Miller doesn't hold back, either. From throwing a chair when a mother doesn't follow directions to yelling her trademark phrase, “everyone's replaceable," she's had her share of epic breakdowns. Would she change anything she's said or done on the first two seasons of “Dance Moms"? “Yes," she says. “My hair for the first six episodes." It's the kind of wisecrack that the camera loves.

“It's when people stop talking about me that I'll start worrying," she says. “Sure, there are people out there who are haters. I say, if you don't like what you see, change the channel. But 'Dance Moms' isn't going anywhere." DT

Success Stories: Abby Lee's Students

If the professional success of students is a reliable measure of a teacher's abilities, Abby Lee Miller must be doing something right. The lobby of her Pittsburgh studio is filled with headshots of alumni currently working on Broadway, film and television. Here are just a few examples.

  • - Miranda Maleski was a Top 20 contestant on “So You Think You Can Dance" Season 8. Since then, she's danced with Kanye West and appeared in the Disney Channel pilot “Zombies and Cheerleaders" and ABC Family's “Elixir."
  • - Mark Myars is currently dance supervisor for Wicked internationally and on Broadway. He's performed in 9 to 5, Footloose, West Side Story and Wicked (dance captain) on Broadway.
  • - Jessica Swesey is currently dancing with the Broadway first national tour of West Side Story. Her other credits include the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, Tokyo Disney, HBO's “Boardwalk Empire" and several commercials.
  • - Kirsten Bracken made her Broadway debut in Hairspray in 2002, and she recently played Young Phyllis in the 2011 Broadway revival of Follies.
  • - Allie Meixner has been featured in commercials for General Motors, L'Oréal (with Beyoncé) and Sony; she's danced with Katy Perry, P. Diddy, Snoop Dogg and Toni Braxton; and she has appeared in ABC Family's “Elixir" and Across the Universe.
  • - Rachel Kreiling is a member of the Alison Chase Performance company and teaches for New York City Dance Alliance and Onstage New York. She has also danced at Tokyo Disney, in Mike Schulsters' tap show Revolution and with Rasta Thomas' Rock The Ballet.

Rachel Zar is a Dance Spirit editor. She blogs regularly about “Dance Moms" at www.dancespirit.com.

Dealing with Your Dance Moms

There's always one pushy mother who insists her child is a star, enjoys gossiping or acts like fee deadlines don't apply. Here are seven strategies for coping.

Set guidelines. Parents get their own contract at Michelle Latimer Dance Academy in Denver. They are required to attend a pre-audition meeting to review the studio's mission and a preseason meeting to go over behavior that won't be tolerated, such as late payments or gossiping. “They initial each item, and it makes them think twice," says Latimer.

You are the boss. “Every parent thinks their child is a star. But I always tell them they have to trust me—I will always do what's best for their child," says Kelly Burke of Westchester Dance Academy in New York. If they're always questioning your decisions, it might be time to end the relationship.

Communicate. “Problems start when parents talk to other parents," Latimer says. “I encourage them to come to me instead. If there are open lines of communication, they are less likely to cause drama in the group." Phyllis A. Balagna of Steppin' Out—The Studio in Missouri, puts out a weekly newsletter so everyone is informed and to minimize any drama or complaints.

Zero tolerance. “Parents will try to get away with what we let them get away with," Balagna says. “I don't tolerate nonsense and make this clear from day one."

Maintain artistic control. “Our policy stipulates 'age-appropriate and beautiful costumes, all selected by the director,'" says Linda Bernabei-Retter of Retter's Academy of Dance in California. “We collect all costume fees before any pictures of costumes are presented."

Set up automatic payments. Latimer doesn't have to worry about late fees. If parents want their child to compete, they have to authorize a credit card or checking account debit up front and register for automatic tuition payments.

Keep calm. “I do believe that talking directly to a difficult client is best, and I make those phone calls first thing in the morning to avoid stress and miscommunication," Bernabei-Retter says. “Always take the high road, and never let your emotions dictate a decision."

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