Dance Moms (Wednesdays, 10/9c, Lifetime) has enough bickering to put Real Housewives to shame and enough questionable parenting to make Toddlers & Tiaras seem like Sesame Street in comparison. At its center: Abby Lee Miller, who runs the Abby Lee Dance Company in Pittsburgh. Miller's "tough love" method of teaching features plenty of barking, scant praise (at least as far as what we're privy to, per the show's editing) and a pyramid, which she uses to rank her favorite students on a weekly basis. Viewers are, unsurprisingly, harrowed and riveted.
We spoke to Miller about the theatrics of her vocation and show, and to hear her tell it, the pyramid is made-for-TV invention. Peppering her speech with reminders about her and her studio's accomplishments, Miller told us about her background, the impetus for her toughness and why she wishes she could teach orphans.
How has the feedback from the show on your end been?
Abby Lee Miller: We're in Lake Tahoe right now, so I'm pretty far removed from society. I feel like I'm at Girl Scout Camp. We don't have Internet in the rooms. Our phones are on fire, but it's kind of strange. It's been fun, exciting, crazy.
The show has provoked a big reaction.
Miller: It's strange. Surreal. I've been doing this for 31 years. Twenty years ago, I was really mean. I've mellowed greatly since then. It's strange to me that people find this interesting because ... I have kids working all over the industry. There isn't a place that I walk in associated with dance where there isn't someone who's worked with one of my students: hired them, stood alongside of them or something.
Is your mellowing a matter of learning from mistakes or getting tired?
Miller: I would chalk it up to the success rate and to the legacy. I had to prove myself. I started my company at 14, so I was telling grown adults that owned businesses and were professionals where to go, what time to be there, how to dress, what to say and what to do. They listened. I came up against some things because of my age: "Who do you think you are?" That kind of thing. I think that because I'm now in my 40s, I don't have to work as hard to get my name out there. My reputation precedes me.
It's interesting that your tactics worked for you, since they say you catch more flies with honey. Has that not been your experience?
Miller: No, I do believe that quote, but I'm training people to go on and make a living. People forget that sometimes. My former students that are now buying their own apartments in New York City and houses in the Hamptons, writing a check to go to college at a major university, coming back with 60 grand in the bank from Tokyo Disney ... this is their livelihood. I need to be tough. I can't mince words. I can't sugarcoat it. I want them to be prepared when they get to New York and go to an audition. If you want someone to say, "She's so sweet and she's so cute and, honey, point your foot," that's not my school. You can go to the YMCA and have a nobody teach your kid if that's what you want to hear.
Conventional wisdom is that positive reinforcement helps kids learn. Do you reject that?
Miller: No. I do positive reinforcement. There's nothing that satisfies me as a teacher more than me spotting a child, let's say [during] an aerial — a cartwheel without hands. I'll spot them over and over and over again, and it's like taking the training wheels off of a bicycle. When they execute that trick properly [by themselves] and jump up and down and scream and yell and run into my arms and hug me, that's amazing. That's a wonderful feeling. I would love to feel that every day. But when you're talking about a competition, and investing tons of money, you want to go out there and put your best foot forward.
Your pyramid system of visually ranking your favorite students was very controversial on the Internet ...
Miller: I've never done that in my life. That has nothing to do with me. That's the show. They came up with that whole process.
Is it tough to be asked to do something you wouldn't normally? Ultimately, you're representing yourself and your business and no one watching can accurately distinguish reality TV machinations from reality.
Miller: No. There's a lot of things on the show that would never, ever happen. It's television. When we got the opportunity to do the show, all the competitions that came to Pittsburgh were over. All these competitions we're attending, I've never attended in my life. Teaching children a routine in a hotel hallway that they are performing onstage the next day? That's insane. Nobody would do that. But you know what? These kids' ability to comprehend quickly is truly a gift. This show has taught them, "I'm gonna learn it, and I'm gonna do it." The whole pyramid thing was for the show because we could not do a new solo for every single child, and a new group and new duets and trios every single week. There's just not time available.
Do you worry at all that by representing your process on air differently than how it is in real life, you're cheating yourself out of business?
Miller: My student just won Mr. Dance of America and I have three title winners for Dance Educators of America in Vegas. I've been around for a long time. My name is not unfamiliar to anybody in the dance community. I'm talking the upper echelon of dance studios. As far as business in Pittsburgh, business is bad anyway. Pittsburgh is a very depressed community. I built my building from the ground up. As far as the general public is concerned, I always tell people that you need to look like a dance teacher like you're looking for a pediatrician. It's hands-on, and you might be with them from age 3 to 18: I've spent 15 years with [some]. I see them more than their families do.
Have you read about child psychology and education, or do you work off of experience?
Miller: I've been in continuing education programs since taking my dance masters exam at age 21. I'm also the examiner for Dance Educators of America. I give the test. There are lots of sections on eating disorders, parent-student relationships, kinesiology, anatomy, on and on and on.
I think the show's premise is a meditation on the answer to this next question, but who's harder to deal with: the parents or the kids?
Miller: Oh, absolutely the parents. If I could have the state send me a check and teach orphans, that'd be great.
There was a fight with a minister in the first episode that resulted in you calling the police. How typical is that when the cameras aren't rolling?
Miller: That is not typical. She was expelled previously for her actions, it had nothing to do with her child. She went to two other studios, came knocking and begging to return to my studio, saying she learned from her mistakes. That was last year, and you saw what happened one year later.
Do you have any apprehension when it comes to what you're showing of yourself on TV?
Miller: [Interrupted by someone telling her to get back on set] No, for the first time in my life at my age, I was at a dance convention, not sleeping on a roll-away, not on an air mattress with seven other kids in my room, but I actually had my own room. I thought, at this point in my life, I have done amazing things and I have dedicated my entire life — I don't have a husband, I don't have children — to my students. And this involves me. And it's the only thing I've ever done for myself and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. The doors I'm opening on this show for my students and future students are amazing and no other dance teacher can do that.
I know you have to go, but I just wanted to touch on the talk about the girls' "hot" outfits and dancing from this week's episode. What, to you, is over the line?
Miller: It's all costume. It's all play. My thing is that the costume enhance the body. It should hide flaws. And No. 2, it should work with the piece. It should tell the story. Just keep watching 'cause you're gonna see sweet little cotton dresses next.