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The evil genius and pornographic pageantry of Dance Moms

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On the wall of the Abby Lee Miller Dance Studio in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania is one of many decorative homilies. This one reads: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the ONLY thing”.
Beneath it, a group of very young girls in tiny spandex tops and leotards, flip, cartwheel, pirouette and contort their snap and they’ll break bodies into dance routines under the watchful eye of a large, bouffy-haired, raspy-voiced monster, whose eponymous dance studio advertises the very worst of America.
“They come for me!” Abby Lee shrieks to the camera, referring to the hordes of tortured pre-teens who audition for a place at her company. “I can make you or break you!” (But she might be broken herself given the news about fraud charges against her).
Overlooking the dance floor in a glass screened viewing room are the mothers, a collection of middle-aged women with blonde streaks and fake tans, who absorb every move on the studio floor, tracking their offspring with a literal glint in their eyes.
Dance Moms is an American reality show based around this endeavour, whereby an egomaniac teacher and a collection of over-invested mothers whose collective ego makes the Kardashian clan look Amish, psychologically abuse little girls into being who they want them to be, which appears to be potential singing-dancing hookers.
As the girls make their way through endless provincial comps on their way to the national finals, the camera tracks the endless (and occasionally contrived) dramas that have long been the plot drivers of behind the scenes show-biz tales. Rivalries between kids, cat-fights between mothers, screaming matches between mothers and Abby Lee, Abby Lee meltdowns, sobbing children, blackmailing Moms (“If you don’t get in here right now, your phone is gone for the next two weeks!”), faulty props, mishaps with headbands, melting make-up, visiting casting directors “Can you believe it? From New York City!” — these create the riveting footage that cannot be rejected by any amount of taste, integrity or education in the viewer.
This is the most watchable show in the reality line-up, at least for a mother. In an era of paedophile-paranoia, where all middle-aged men are potential suspects, where iPhones are forbidden in public pools and men without children are banned from playgrounds, here is a show that unselfconsciously grooms their prey, presumably attracting advertisers and big bucks for producers, cable networks and VOD suppliers.
The camera knows what this show is, the audiences know it, but the protagonists are so consumed by the mission at hand: fame, that they are blinded by the spangles of the crop-tops. “It’s all about the kids,” says one mom —  most of whom have something not-quite-right animating their expressions, “It’s about them becoming stars”.
As much as this is a show about the seductive charisma of celebrity in America, it is most mesmerising in showcasing the extreme-sports energy of its little sister: ambition. Interviews with the mothers at home reveal little girl bedrooms decorated in pink ruffles and shelves of trophies. “We would love for her to have a title win”, they say, as the girls sitting beside them blankly, maintain the customary position of silent servitude to the dreams of their mothers.
In certain ways, the show is an insightful prism into the subtle emotional chronology of girls. The younger girls, at ten or 11 or 12, are still largely in the sway of their mother’s ambitions. The older ones are firing up their own identities, occasionally revealing the subversion that will either explode in future seasons or see them go AWOL.
In Vivi-Anne’s bedroom, a catastrophe of pink, her mother rhapsodises about the colour: “Pink is a way of life!” she cries as Vivi-Anne adds, sotto voce “I hate pink”.
“Don’t you care?” screams one irate mother at her older daughter, Brooke, for not trying hard enough. “Not really,” she shrugs, her depressed expression saying what a thousand words could not.
But mostly, Maddie and Mackensie and Nia and Chloe are unable to see beyond the parameters of their mothers’ insanity. There is no freedom. They might as well be held captive in a dungeon with certifiable perverts. These women are like the Lizard Queens of some sci-fi series. Dressed in the bright colours, deep tans, and golden highlights of American middle-class suburbia, the Stepford Wives have transitioned into the Stepford Moms of the new millennium, only their chirpy facades disguise a perversity much more troubling.
The women are hopelessly lost in the idealism of the ’50s, a Mad Men landscape without the men or the great clothes, where feminism is irrelevant, little girls are little dolls and popular culture is a Broadway show. These women are in hard-core denial of a youth world populated by Nicki Minaj — or even Lady Gaga or Beyonce. The feisty, big-butt, take-no-prisoners female star who now dominates music culture belongs to a world the Abby Lee studio has no time for.
The healthy, strong physiques of the modern girl out there running, playing, climbing are sacrificed to physiques calibrated for a pornographic pageantry. “If Vivi came to me and said she wants to play softball, I’d probably slit my wrists!” says Vivi’s mom.
We are in Jon-Benet Ramsey World, where tiny bodies are stuffed into spangled lingerie and ten year olds are told to shake their tiny hips and nail a “flirty” move. Abby Lee directs Nia, a pint-sized black kid, to wear a leopard-skin jump-suit and Afro for an upcoming comp: “It’s really like a satire on a Drag Queen look,” says Abby Lee to the camera, delighted. “Put the panties on last!”.
What do these Moms want? They want their daughters to be the sexual, public beauty queens they could never be. They want them to sail on the boat they missed. They say they want them to win trophies, but they want more than that. In every costume, every reprimand, every expression of love, adoration, admiration and encouragement they are guiding small girls into a culture of fantasy fuckable show-ponies, tiny faces gilded with false lashes, lips painted red for a pederastic culture that feeds off the sexualisation of youth and in this entertainment loophole, gets away with it.
When one child gets hit in the face by a giant prop lolly-pop, which has already been deemed simultaneously too heavy, dangerous, cumbersome and compulsory, the sobbing child is told to “Suck it up!” Abby Lee launches into her customary rant, glimpses of defensiveness peeking through the overplayed indignation: “I’m preparing them for a career!” She lectures ten year olds on the realities of the adult industry, as if their inability to project themselves into adulthood constitutes their failure and a failure which threatens to undermine her own stellar reputation.
Watching Dance Moms, it’s hard to believe it’s legal. At one inner city primary school in Melbourne, kids have been banned from running. Tree houses cannot be built for work and safety requirements. And in Pittsburgh, as well as all across America (and Australia) in companies with names like “Candy Apple Dance Academy”, humans who have only been on the planet for a decade are harnessed in silk panties and berated into dancing to songs like Daddy’s Little Girl.
I have frequently been aghast at my own ambitions projected onto my kids. Around me, educated middle-class mothers subscribe their kids to a schedule of relentless “self-actualisation” in the hope that they will find something to be great at, something to make their parents feel great, something to build self-esteem and allow their parents to tell other parents one day that they got a scholarship for Alvin Ailey or the LSO or Julliard. Art, ballet, music, sport, drama, academic tutorials…. These kids come home from school with fifteen minutes to eat something before the afternoon disappears into a boot-camp of self-improvement.
You could easily make Dance Moms in any Australian inner city suburb. The mothers would be wearing natural fibres and feeding their kids carob protein balls rather than Twinkies, they’d have Greens car stickers instead of Gun Rights and their boots may be full of wooden ergonomic trikes rather than portable make-up mirrors. But the conversations in the SUVs may not differ all that much from Abby Lee’s tempestuous world of parental ambition.
“If you want to be a concert cellist, you have to really commit Persephone!”
At the end of one episode, the Pittsburgh girls are decked out in gold and black bikini tops and pants, ears affixed with crystal earrings. They enter from the wings with an exaggerated slutty strut and begin a routine that has them sitting Christine-Keeler-style backwards on chairs to a sound-track that promises: “I’ll make you feel good….I’ll be your fantasy…. I’m your fantasy girl”.
“I want you to want to win!” Abby Lee admonishes the girls after getting second place. The evil genius of Dance Moms is that we all want our kids to win and more than a few of us don’t care what it costs.

One response to “The evil genius and pornographic pageantry of Dance Moms

  1. Saw that show once and was aghast that it could even be made, it seems a collection of masturbatory material for pedophiles.
    As for the woman running that show, I’d like to hope that here in Australia she’d be drummed out of the industry, sadly though, I expect she’d thrive here too.

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