DT on Dance Moms: The Pyramid Scheme

If you’re like us, you were thrilled to see that there would finally be a reality show about the world of competitive dancing—showing off the hard work, creative choreography and talented youngsters that make competitions and conventions so wonderful. Then came Dance Moms.


Lifetime’s new show didn’t exactly live up to our expectations. While there’s no question that Abby Lee Miller of Abby Lee Dance Studio in Pittsburgh, PA, turns out fabulous competitors, we have some concerns about her tactics—many of which, we are sure, were edited by producers for shock value. Each week, DT will speak up here about an issue that we find particularly pressing in the most recent episode. But please don’t let this be a one-sided conversation. What do you think about each episode? Do you like the way that competitive dance is being portrayed? Do you do things differently? We’ve started the discussion on our Facebook page. Keep it going!


This week’s issue: Casting


On the series premier, the children and their mothers were shocked to learn that Abby Lee had implemented a new casting system at her studio: the pyramid. Nothing starts drama quite as easily as ranking your students—one on top, two in the middle, and three on the very bottom.  


 “Everyone wants to be front and center, I hear it all the time,” says Abby Lee. “Whoever is in the front and center, they can’t make a mistake, they are holding that group together.” No pressure, right? And this week, it’s 9-year-old Maddie who gets that honor—along with all the dirty looks, rude comments and demand to be perfect that come along with it. Even her mom gets attitude from other moms based on Abby Lee’s decision. How can you avoid putting too much stress on one student? How can you make dancers feel important, even if they’re not in the lead role? Here are DT’s tips:


(Tips based on "The Politics of Casting" by Leigh Kamping-Carder.)


1. It helps to choose choreography that allows numerous students to play special roles. And, if you are performing a routine more than once, try having multiple casts to give more students the chance to shine.


2. Don’t play favorites. That may mean taking casting out of your hands and asking choreographers or neutral judges to make the hard decisions.


3. For those who miss out on the solos, explain why (maybe they failed to take extra classes or languished in the back of the classroom every week) and always encourage the hopefuls that the next competition may be their moment.


4. Make sure students completely understand the casting process. Be truthful about their abilities, but emphasize that dancers lose out on roles for countless reasons: lack of preparation, weakness in certain techniques, inexperience with auditions or simply not being suited to a role. Give them confidence in your objectivity.


5. Of course, even a fair and transparent casting process can make rivals of classmates. Minimize fallout by explaining to students the importance of always being kind and don’t stand for any snide comments that you may hear.


6. Ironically, it is often the parents who are angriest when that list of names goes up (enter Dance Moms). But it’s important to educate parents about the casting process as well. If you are truly being fair and not playing favorites, they will understand. Transparency and honest communication are the most important things when it comes to casting.


To end, we leave you with our favorite quote from this week’s episode: “Pink isn’t a color, but it is a way of life.” —Cathy (Vivi-Anne’s dance mom)

 And don’t forget to leave your comments on our Facebook page discussion board! 





Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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