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."

Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

News
Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.


Here's why your dancers (and you!) should tune in:

They'll see dance history in the making.

Carlos Acosta. Debbie Allen. Camille A. Brown. Laurieann Gibson. Alonzo King.

If you haven't already taught your students about these esteemed awardees, odds are you'll be adding them to your curriculum before long.

Not only will your students get to hear from each of them at a pivotal moment in their careers (and Dance Magazine Awards acceptance speeches are famously chock-full of inspiration), they'll also hear from presenters like William Forsythe and Theresa Ruth Howard.

This year, all the Dance Magazine Awards are going to Black artists, as a step towards repairing the history of honoring primarily white artists.

And meet tomorrow's dance legends.

Dance Magazine's Harkness Promise Awards, this year going to Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders, offer funding, rehearsal space and mentorship to innovative young choreographers in their first decade of presenting work—a powerful reminder to your students that major success in the dance world doesn't happen overnight.

They'll get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

Solely teaching your students how to be a great dancer doesn't give them the full picture. A complete dance education produces artists who are savvy about what happens behind the scenes, too.

In 2018, Dance Media launched the Chairman's Award to honor those behind-the-scenes leaders who keep our field moving. Each year's recipient is chosen by our CEO, Frederic M. Seegal. This year's award goes to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who is using philanthropy to make the performing arts—and the world at large—more just.

And, of course, see dozens of great dance works.

Where else could your students see selections from Alonzo King's contemporary ballet classics next to Camille A. Brown's boundary-pushing dance theater works? Or see both Carlos Acosta and Laurieann Gibson in action in the same evening? Excerpts from the awardees' works will show your students what it is exactly that makes these artists so special.

So gather your class (virtually!) and join us next Monday, December 7, at 6 pm. To receive the special student rate, please email dmawards@dancemedia.com.

See you there!

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