Shut Up And Dance! Is Dance Moms For Real?

Have you watched Dance Moms? (9 p.m., Wednesdays, Lifetime.) The cable TV reality show aims its cameras at the twirling tots of the Miss Abby Lee Dance Company of Pittsburgh, PA.

More horrifying than Toddles & Tiaras, it's evidence of how ruthless some parents are in pursuit of stardom and fame for their kids - whether kids want it or not. The psycho ballerina Natalie Portman played in Black Swan? This is where she would've tied on her first pair of toe shoes.

At Miss Abby's school, kids, mostly girls between the ages of 6 and 13, practice routines for four or five hours a night, seven days a week in prep for dance competitions. The star of Dance Moms is the teacher, a hillock named Abby Lee Miller who screams at the children like she's a drill sergeant and they're all little pigtailed Gomer Pyles. The co-stars are the moms, who spend $20,000 a year to keep their moppets dancing in costumes that would make Humbert Humbert blush. Then come the kids, pretty, exhausted, stressed-out baby ballerinas always on the verge of tears. Their childhoods resemble those of state-trained Chinese gymnasts of the 1970s. But with more ruffles and Red Bull.

Here's a look at Miss Abby's little glittery army. Watch and wince.

To find out if this show exaggerates the world of youth dance competitions, we talked to Dallas dancer and choreographer Jeremy Dumont. You may have seen him tearing up the floor with the Turtle Creek Chorale, as one of the dancers in Dallas Theater Center's hit Cabaret or in Theatre Three's Drowsy Chaperone. He's danced in three international tours of West Side Story and recently choreographed Garland Summer Musicals' Music Man. Dumont, 25, has just been hired as resident choreographer of children's musicals at Casa Manana. He's also in the early stages of forming his own dance company.

So what do you think of Dance Moms? Jeremy Dumont: There is truth to what it is that they're showing. I feel like I have met those people before. I've had some crazy dance teachers. Not any who were abusive like Miss Abby is, in my opinion. But those dance competitions are the real deal.

I started out in a small studio in DeSoto when I was 10. That was our main thing, competing. It was more about competition than training. Then I went to another studio in Grand Prairie that was even more competitive. Unfortunately, you get these studios and all they do is compete. All you do is a couple of numbers the whole year, over and over. It's not about training dancers the right way. It's all about competing.

It really isn't good for little kids. We'd rehearse from 4:30 or 5 p.m. till about 9 o'clock. Every night. Then you go to these two- and three-day competitions. The point is to win a trophy and to say you're better than the studio next to you. It's a big business and a big deal for these studios..

Competition world hasn't really changed. It's still the same studios competing now.

Give me a competition scene horror story that you lived through. It's a hot mess. I wish I could say it's not like that in real life. But it's worse. There was a boy named Sean and I beat him at one competition. I was named Mr. StarQuest or something. He and his mom complained and stayed there until the judges finally made another announcement that it was a tie, so they gave him the same award they gave me. Stupid stuff like that.

How did you escape all that to become a real professional dancer? When I was 12 or 13 I did a small national tour of The Music Man through Dallas Summer Musicals. I was the understudy for "Winthrop" (the little boy role). Then I switched studios in high school to begin really training. My mom started out sort of as a stage mom. It's so easy to get wrapped up in that bullshit. She would give me notes after I danced. It definitely put a strain in our relationship. But it came to a point that she was pushing me too hard. She backed away and we got out of the competition scene because we realized I had to not compete anymore and go somewhere for training dancers. I went to Top Hat Dance Center in Lewisville -- by far the best dance center in the metroplex. Best training you could get. They don't care about the competition side of it. I still go back there from time to time.

What do you think of "Miss Abby" on Dance Moms? Where to begin? My favorite is always how she says "This is how the professional world is ... this is how it is on Broadway." I really wonder how many of her students have made it professionally.

She does a good job, relatively speaking, at drilling them and running her business. It's just the way she goes about doing it that's completely wrong. How and why do those parents keep taking their kids there?

What is going to happen to those girls, one of two things: They'll pursue dance but most of them will be burnt out. Or they're 9 or 10 now and in a few years they won't want to dance because they were pushed. There's no joy in it. You can see that.

One of the other things that hit me, that scene last week where the mom was crying because her little girl was tired and wanted to go home and eat and play with her siblings. She told her little girl if they went home then she'd have to take her out of the solo routine. She's missing the whole point. That little girl loves to dance. Regardless of what she wins at the competition, she should be able to go and dance. She should not have to choose between going home and spending time with brothers and sisters or competing.

You've been teaching some dance camps in Southlake. Have you encountered these "competition kids" in class? These "studio brats" are hard to teach. It's all tricks with them. It's like if as an actor you had one monologue you worked on all year. Then someone gives you a scene from Streetcar. You don't know what to do with it. They haven't been trained.

Who are your inspirations as a dancer/choreographer? Jirí Kylián of the Nederlands Dans Ballet. He's a choreographer who also dances. I like Rob Ashford [Broadway's current How to Succeed... and Shrek the Musical] and how athletic he is. I aspire to be like Gene Kelly. He was brilliant as a choreographer and as a dancer was amazing. And here in Dallas, I love Joel Ferrell at Dallas Theater Center. He was a wonderful inspiration for me with Cabaret. If I could have an ounce of his success, I'd be a happy guy.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner