Confession: I love Dance Moms. It’s not a guilty pleasure — there’s no shame. I await your judgments in the comments.
There isn’t much reality TV on the planner at my house, but Dance Moms is a treasured exception. First up, those kids can dance. Some of the things they can do seem to defy gravity and the limits of human anatomy. But as the name suggests, we’re really watching it for the adults: what with the power play, the fragile alliances and the regular coups, Dance Moms is like a less subtle Game of Thrones, with glitter.
The eponymous ‘moms’ are pretty much every crazy stereotype of the pushy stage mum, turned up to 11. Their motto may as well be ‘Never Knowingly Under-reacted’. They are competitive, alternately allies and nemeses depending on who’s got a solo, and who’s got the best costume. They stir each other up, have screaming matches at bars, even get into fights with each other. But fear them when they unite against a common foe. And don’t mistake their fiery nature for bad parenting — they are fiercely protective of their children, and some of the most touching moments are when they switch from bickering with each other to supporting each other’s kids. They are also, occasionally, hilarious fun. In short, you wouldn’t want to be a rival dance mom, but they would be a hoot on a night out with cocktails.
And then there’s Abby Lee Miller. Oh, Abby. Where to start? Abby rules the studio with an iron fist, terrifying everyone around her with her sudden fits of rage, screaming at the kids, screaming at the moms, punishing the kids when their moms don’t toe the line. Nothing is EVER her fault, even when everything is. She is often an impossible caricature of a human being. But here’s the thing: she gets results. The mean lady gets a lot of wins. She’s a star-maker. If the kids survive her tutelage, they will never be fazed by anything that the industry throws at them. And the moms know that too. So every week, that delicate power balance plays out; don’t let her get away with too much, but don’t push her too far. It’s fascinating, really funny, and really awful, all at the same time.
Controversial dances are Abby’s specialty. The kids perform new routines at competition every week, and Abby loves a ‘theme of the week’ style approach. She has had them perform routines about teen suicide, the dangers of texting while driving, the civil rights movement, and homelessness. She has them dance in all sorts of roles: murderers, murder victims, jilted brides, drag queens, showgirls, maids, prisoners, drug dealers, prostitutes…
So when a dance is billed as the most controversial routine ever, the piece in question, ‘The Last Dance’, sounded like it was going to be EPIC. But — it wasn’t. And the shitstorm that followed reeked of hypocrisy, hyperbolic prudishness and yeah, a healthy dose of sexism.
By this point in season 7, the older girls have quit Abby’s studio and set up their own group. Because Abby is Abby, this wasn’t anything to do with her erratic and awful behaviour, oh no, it was TREASON. The girls re-named themselves The Irreplaceables, a fairly crappy name on its own, but one that makes a dig at one of Abby’s favourite catchphrases, ‘everyone’s replaceable’ - i.e. do what I say, or I’ll kick you out and there’ll be a line of kids outside waiting to take your spot. The Irreplaceables were tired of doing the same combinations and the same tricks. They are in their teens and don’t really want to be dancing with little ones any more. They want to do something a bit more grown up. Their guest choreographer pitched them a burlesque-inspired number, and they ran with it. Here it is—watch it, I’ll wait.
Did you survive without your eyeballs melting? Then you did better than some people! Abby walked out of the auditorium before the music started. She took one look at the girls as they walked on stage, and flounced away. She quit the show entirely. This was meant to be a moral stand against the costumes. She said, “That’s disgusting to me. It’s the epitome of trash, as far as I’m concerned. I refuse to sit in that audience ever again.”
She has voiced concerns about skimpy costumes before, but crucially, only when the costumes weren’t her idea. She railed against Nia’s outfits in her debut music video, saying they were inappropriate for her age, when she has put children in ‘worse’ than that. She had her students dancing in burlesque-style costumes when they were 8 years old. She even dressed one girl up as literal trash one time, and when the mother objected, she pulled the number as punishment. But she had nothing to do with Nia’s music career, and that was the real problem. It was the same thing here: it wasn’t about the costumes. It was about her. She just didn’t want to watch her former students compete without her input. If she was truly outraged, she is a hypocrite. If not, she’s just trying to undermine her former students as they break out on their own. Most likely of all, she made sure she quit the show before she want to jail, so that she controlled that part of the narrative. (OH YEAH, Abby’s gone to jail now. But that’s another story.)
Then Ashlee (mother of Brynn) walked out. Initially, Brynn quit the ALDC with the other girls, but she opted to go back to Abby’s studio rather than stay with The Irreplaceables. This was her choice, but her mom, Ashlee was branded a traitor by the other moms as a result. (Never knowingly under-reacted, right?) Ashlee was morally outraged by ‘The Last Dance’, comparing the girls to “strippers” and saying that it was “gross”, though at least she stayed to watch it first. Brynn liked a tweet that described the dancers as “hookers”. They faced criticism online as a result, and have both now quit the show.
But these ‘outraged’ responses are the really gross part. The sexualisation of these kids is in the response, not the performance itself. They are teenagers, and they are dancing on stage in a competition. They are not stripping in a club. They are not selling sex. They are not wearing any more or less than they normally would in a dance competition. Dance competition costumes need to show off the body, to show off what that body is doing. They also need to contribute to the story or the theme. They have rehearsed and performed in revealing, skimpy and provocative outfits countless times before. Here’s a handy compilation of the ‘most inappropriate’ costumes and routines on Dance Moms:
Now, the video lists these as ‘inappropriate’, but are these outfits really that much more revealing than a standard leotard? Do those inches of midriff push the outfits into unacceptable and inappropriate? If so, Ashlee’s discomfort seems fairly hypocritical as well, as Brynn wasn’t wearing much more than that. Ashlee seemed more concerned about the choreography itself, to be fair. But if she objected to that, she hasn’t been paying attention to the show.
The routine at number two in the video above, ‘Electricity’, caused an epic scandal in season 1. Fast forward to season 7, and the moves are actually pretty similar, but the costumes are less like something out of ‘Lady Marmalade’, and the girls are almost adults. In season 1, the moms were the ones objecting to the costumes for ‘Electricity’; Abby was the one pushing for them. Christi was admittedly worried about skimpy and provocative clothing when they were little:
But she notes that they can pull this sort of thing off now, and I agree. It seems ridiculous for ‘The Last Dance’ to be rated the most inappropriate on that list.
When dancers are flexible and they show that off with contortion work or high kicks while wearing leotards or equivalently skimpy clothing, there will inevitably be moments you could call ‘gusset exposure’. This happens all the time in gymnastics as well. This might make people uncomfortable, but it is not inherently inappropriate, and it’s pretty gross to insinuate that moves of this type are sexual. Moves that might be described as ‘hoochy’ in ‘The Last Dance’ have been performed countless times before as well. They did the butt slap move in ‘Electricity’. Centre-body isolations that push out the chest and the butt are also nothing new.
“BUT THEY ARE DANCING IN HEELS!” people screeched. Yes, and they have done that before too. Here’s ‘Bittersweet Charity’, from season 6:
It’s not that different, is it? Even down to the ‘knowing smirk’ facial expression. If anything, these moves are less inappropriate now than they were when the kids were little.
Except perhaps that is the real minefield. Maybe those moves were ‘more innocent’ when the girls were little. Perhaps the issue is that the girls’ bodies are now ‘more mature’, in which case what we have here is essentially the Boob Police. RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! There are girls with GIRL PARTS! The boobs are covered but they CLEARLY EXIST! AVERT YOUR EYES!
Every generation has reacted with shock and disgust at ‘the next big thing’ in dance. The Waltz was scandalous in its early years. The Charleston was shocking in its youth, what with young women showing all sorts of ankle and jumping around all over the place. Dance is a lens we can use to analyse attitudes to gender, power and sex, and an art form where the envelope can be pushed. When stories are told using the body, attention is necessarily drawn to that body. Some of those costumes might make you uncomfortable; I will usually need to stifle a giggle when I see men in tights dancing ballet. But that’s on me, not on the dancers. They are not thrusting their sexuality in my face. They are just in possession of a body with that body’s standard component parts.
These dancers are young women who are not afraid to say when they are uncomfortable with sequences, individual moves or costumes. Even when facing the terrifying Abby, they have refused to go beyond what they are comfortable with. Not long ago, Abby wanted Nia to twerk in one of her solos, and she refused. It is patronising to assume that they have been exploited and forced into dancing in way that makes them feel objectified. If anything, they were feeling grown up, confident and empowered, and that should be celebrated, not described as “gross”.
If it’s awful to have teenagers playing burlesque dancers, remember that no-one got upset or quit the show when Maddie played Lizzie Borden.
So it’s OK to play a murderer but not to play a burlesque dancer? Playing a murderer doesn’t make you a murderer, but playing a burlesque dancer makes you a whore? Killing is fine, but sex is dirty? Sounds, well, American. (Sorry, but y’all have some weird priorities sometimes…)
So was it the most controversial dance routine in the history of Dance Moms? No. Either they are all inappropriate, or none of them are. The fact that this one is being framed as the show’s most controversial dance ever suggests that those getting outraged have a serious problem with the female body and female sexuality. It wasn’t the best routine the girls have ever done; it doesn’t show their best work at all, but dammit, leave them alone. Stop calling teenage girls “hookers” and “strippers” because of dance costumes and dance moves. If you think that the choreography or costumes are a bit too mature for the age group, there is no need to resort to slut-shaming vocabulary to make your point. And there is certainly no place for an argument that makes judgmental assumptions about female promiscuity based on clothing.