I watched the Lifetime show Dance Moms last night. The show focuses on one particular dance school named for instructor and owner, Abby Lee Miller. Set in Pittsburgh, the reality drama follows a group of pre-teen dance students as they train hard to win prizes.
My daughter was only enrolled in dance for a brief time - when she was four years old. She was in a combo ballet, tap, and gymnastics class led by a 75-year-old woman named Miss Jeannie. Parents were enthralled as we watched our little ballerinas sashay behind their animated teacher. The young girls loved Miss Jeannie.
Our second experience was not so great. Sabrina wanted to audition for the local Nutcracker ballet. She had limited experience, so was cast as a Toy Soldier. I did not expect the intensity of both the teachers and the parents. Competition was fierce. The instructors threatened parents that if our children missed or were late more than twice - they would be thrown out of the show. Several times I remember racing for the gym and being delayed at a train crossing, sweating out the moments and hoping my tardiness wouldn't boot my daughter from the show.
Dance - an activity that seemed to be about joy and creativity and fun - became exceedingly stressful for both my daughter and myself.
Dance Moms is all about stress. Teacher Abby Miller is both feared and revered by her students and by the parents. She is exceedingly demanding and critical. She calls the shots. She won't take no for an answer. Objections from parents are met with disdain and often yelling.
The little girls are pushed - sometimes beyond the capacity of 8 to 10 year olds. While any atheletic sport demands perseverance and excellence - the criticism often seemed cruel and unreasonable. In addition - the routines were so highly sexual that they made me squirm. Little girls dancing in skimpy outfits to suggestive music seemed out of line. Surprisingly, this did not seem to raise the concern of the parents in the show. When they were concerned, like "Holly" who fears that her African American daughter is being cast in a stereotyped role, they are shut down by fear of the teacher.
The show made me thankful that my daughter chose not to pursue a career in dance. And, while I realize this show focused on one extreme, it also reinforced some issues that most involved parents have with their children's education (inside and outside of school).
As a general rule, concerned parents:
1) Should pay close attention to what and how their children are being taught.
2) Need to communicate with teachers and to freely question inappropriate behavior. Follow your instincts! If it doesn't feel right, it might be a problem.
3) Must recognize that they are not always right. Listen to both your child and his or her teacher before jumping to conclusions. Speak to teachers with respect.
4) Should avoid living vicariously through their children. Does your child want to be "a star" or "an athelete" or a "straight A" student? Or, do you?
In one of the saddest moments of the show, a little girl is riding in the backseat of a car being driven by her mom. The mother is rambling on about how great the next dance event will be and how she wants her daughter to pose for modelling photos like she did when she was young.
The daughter, her little face fixed in a sullen frown, is whispering to herself that she doesn't really want to be a star....
The scene is enough to give any parent pause.