"Dance Moms" is a "reality" type show for the Lifetime cable channel, dealing with a group of dancers ranging from ages 7-13 (two of them sisters) at the Abby Lee Dance Company in Pittsburgh, PA, and of course their moms who are along for the ride. Abby Lee Miller is apparently a highly sought-after dance instructor because many of her students have gone on to professional dance careers. It isn't made clear how these students and their mothers got onto this show- I searched around for an explanation but could not find one. It appears that some of them were already students here before the show began, but have also heard some were chosen through auditions for the show's producers. Whatever the case, Abby teaches the kids dance routines in the studio while their moms watch through a window in a room above. Sometimes they're invited into the studio, but only when Abby says so. Either way they seem required to be there as one is lambasted several times for having to be at work instead (ironically she appears to be the sanest one of the bunch). Each show ends with the students performing the routine they've learned at a big dance competition, either in town or several states away.
Each episode has a brief intro sequence, with the mothers and daughters dressed up and happily dancing with each other on a CG background. This was how I expected most of the show to be, but was I in for a surprise. Now, keep in mind that I don't have cable for reasons that could fill an entire article, and I don't even watch very much broadcast TV for a number of other reasons. I know the "reality show" genre has been popular for a while, but I've seen very little of it until now. Anyways, while "Dance Moms" may have been quite interesting if it focused primarily on dancing, its main purpose seems to be to show conflicts and arguments amongst the participants. The moms find plenty of opportunities to bicker with each other and with Abby Lee Miller, usually leaving their kids awkwardly in the middle.
Instructor Abby Lee Miller (who reminds me of Divine, the late cult movie icon) shows some compassion, but most of the time is abrasive, literally yelling at her students if they aren't performing exactly the way she wants them to. I know this is sometimes necessary in a "coaching" position, but many times she brings these girls to tears. If they do end up crying, she shames them and says "Save your tears for your pillow." The moms aren't much help either, as they frequently get into arguments with her. Most of them seem to have the attitude that THEIR daughter is the very best dancer ever and Abby should give them the starring role in every routine, and put up a fight if they don't.
Then there's a "rival" dance studio that gets a lot of screen time- Candy Apple's Dance Center in Canton, OH. They show up at most of the competitions Abby's studio goes to, and one of Abby's students defects over to them after she puts her on "probation". Their instructor Cathy Nesbitt-Stein appears a bit more civilized, but even she can't help hurling insults at Abby and the "Dance Moms". One mom gets repeatedly insulted about her nose during an after-competition meeting.
The format of the show includes intercuts of the participants speaking individually on-camera either before or after major events take place. This allows them to try and give their side of the story during some of the more intense moments (often taking shots at the others while they aren't present, even though they'll likely be heard by them later), or the kids reflecting on how they felt. (Not surprisingly, they're more concerned with their dance performances than any arguments amongst their parents and instructor.)
I laughed a lot watching 12 episodes of this show in a relatively short time period, but mostly not for the intended reasons. Many times I wasn't sure whether or not I was really watching a Christopher Guest mockumentary.
Call me naïve, but "Dance Moms" might have been more enjoyable if everyone had just acted normally and we mostly saw just the ups and downs of competitive dance. I have to strongly suspect that much of the conflicts and yelling were staged by the show's producers. If it were actually real, I have to wonder how these people feel about it being made public like this, much less just having the camera crew there in the first place. No doubt Abby Lee Miller is attracting more potential students through appearing here, but I'm wondering how many she has scared away by acting the way she does? Why does the Candy Apples dance studio get so much attention (were they the only other dance studio within driving distance of Abby's to agree to appear on the show?), and how do they feel about being portrayed as "the enemy" here?
As for the moms, many of them appear immature and make the viewer all the more sorry for their children (profanity is used a few times, though it's bleeped here). Some appear to want their daughters to succeed more than their daughters actually do themselves. Particularly embarrassing is when one mother interrupts a class demanding to know why Abby didn't give her daughter a more prominent role in the routine she's teaching, causing Abby to yell at her for interrupting the class and the daughter just looking embarrassed. One mother's bizarre behavior has her sharing personal details with the other moms, but after she starts wearing an engagement ring she won't tell them anything about that, causing them to speculate behind her back. Later they receive notices from her attorney ordering them to stop discussing her personal life!
When the dance routines are performed by the group at the competitions, they appear to have been cut down for time. After the work the kids put into them, they deserved to have the entire routines included in the show and maybe a little less of the parents' bickering instead. It would be interesting to hear some insight from the show's producers as to what their intentions were.
The show is shot on video but presented at 24 frames per second, in 16x9. While some claim the lower frame rate adds a more "dramatic" feel, I personally feel it would have looked much better at the standard video rate of 30 frames per second, which looks like "live" footage. Compression artifacts are visible in many places on the DVD- much of the original footage likely looked very good, but there is just too much compression here. At least on DVD you don't have to deal with the Lifetime channel's annoying orange logo on the right-hand side of the screen.
Sound is in 2-channel Dolby Digital. Most of the location sound is mono with stereo music, and the applause at the dance competitions is in stereo. During almost all scenes there is some musical underscore intending to manipulate the viewer's reactions (and also makes some words hard to hear), including the thud of a drum to punctuate some things that are said.
Subtitles in SDH format are included as well as Spanish.
Disc one has a number of short features- each of the moms gives a short tour of their home, including a look at their daughter's room which felt just a little bit creepy. Nine other "features" running an average of two minutes show the moms further discussing the events that have transpired so far, with one showing two of them visiting a detective to get information about one of the other more secretive moms. (I'm sure any time you do this to dig up dirt on someone, the detective is perfectly happy to let a camera crew in with you.)
Disc two has an episode of a spin-off show, "Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition". This is held at an old theater in Los Angeles where Abby and a couple other judges watch young dancers and award the best one with a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School (and there's also plenty of time for backstage drama.) The frame rate on this is especially jerky- it may have been intended that way, but it just doesn't look good.
Being an obsessive collector, I must comment on the packaging- the three single-sided discs come stacked on ONE spindle in a standard DVD case. This of course makes it awkward as to what to do with discs 1 and 2 when you're watching disc 3. Making one of the disc 2-sided instead, bringing the disc count down to 2, would have made things much easier. While I know some have expressed their dislike of 2-sided discs, I've always thought using both sides was pretty cool ever since the DVD format was introduced. This set would require a DVD-18 disc (dual-layer on both sides) for that, which was once thought of as the pinnacle of DVD technology but seems to have been shunned after a large number of discs, mostly from Technicolor, came out defective (the discs in this set were made by Sony DADC, who I have never seen a DVD-18 or -14 disc from.) All I can say is that I have several DVD-18 discs from other manufacturers that DO play fine, and 16 years into the format I would hope the manufacturers had perfected them by now. At any rate, the 1-sided discs at least have the episodes contained on them listed on the labels, which is helpful since there is no printed insert.
It's been said that the appeal of "reality" shows is that they make the average viewer feel better about themselves after they've seen people behaving awfully. It seems quite silly to me however, especially if most of it is staged anyways. I don't know whether to be happy for the kids involved as they're getting a bit of fame for this, or sorry for them since their mothers are portrayed as such bad people. It will be interesting to see how much camp value this has after a couple decades, or what its participants will say about it after their contracts have expired.
UPDATE: I have viewed Volume 2 of Season 2, and am pleased to say that it focuses much more on the dancing and less of the backstage drama than Volume 1 does.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.