She’s the oft-authoritarian, second generation dance teacher who a handful of Pittsburgh mothers and millions of happily scandalized viewers love and loathe — and sometimes both at once — on Lifetime’s reality smash Dance Moms.
But this summer Abby Lee Miller decamped to Los Angeles to join Pussycat Dolls founder Robin Antin and star choreographer Richard Jackson at the judging table of Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, the new Lifetime reality contest that she executive produces with her pal, Dance Moms co-creator John Corella. “We had the idea of a competition show way before Dance Moms was ever created,” Miller explains. “This is the show that we were dying to do, and with the success of Dance Moms, we had the opportunity to be heard.”
The series follows the journey of a dozen dancers, ages 6-13, from across the country who must prove their skills to the trio and a live studio audience while their mothers handle the costumes, music, choreography — and, yes, the drama. One dancer/mom combo is eliminated each week until just two face off in the finale for a $100,000 cash prize, a four-year scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School and living expenses in New York City.
I recently spoke with Miller about Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, her battles with the Dance Moms, her hopes for future seasons and what she really wants you to know about the reigning queen of Reigndance Productions.
Channel Guide Magazine: So what did the Dance Moms have to say about you leaving them behind for this new venture?
Abby Miller: I don’t even think they’ve even realized it!
For 30 years, my kids compete every summer and my whole senior company was out here in L.A. They were in Las Vegas for their Nationals at Dance Educators of America and I flew them all over here and took them to the Teen Choice Awards as a treat, as a gift. You know, they’re always getting pushed out of the way of the cameras and they’re not featured on the show like the six or seven little girls that are, so I did it as a treat for them. And then when they got back to Pittsburgh we had a couple workshops, and then it was our downtime. I let school get started up and then we start back again with classes after Labor Day. So I wouldn’t really be seeing them right now anyway.
CGM: You’re working with Collins Avenue, the same folks who produce Dance Moms, so when and how were you approached to do the show?
AM: The guy that is responsible for all of this, who created the show — John Corella — he is my dear friend. I mean there’s been other creators involved, but he’s the guy who I know and who is instrumental in me being on the show. We had the idea of a competition show way before Dance Moms was ever created. This is the show that we were always dying to do, and with the success of Dance Moms, we had the opportunity to be heard. and had the idea to do and I’m an executive producer on the show, and it’s a whole different concept. I’m not so much the bad guy. Well, I’m a little bit bad, but not like in my own studio where I’m training kids to dance. These are other people’s students.
CGM: How were the dancers chosen? I’m imagining you needed good dancer/parent combinations the way you did for Dance Moms?
AM: That’s right. The kids were auditioned all over the country first by submitting video or on the computer, and then it was narrowed down and eventually they were flown to New York. They were looked at by Lifetime executives — the whole nine yards. It was a lot of scrutiny.
And I know so many people in the business, so these really had to be kids that I’d never seen or heard of before. There’s not one child here that I’ve laid eyes on or judged — because, you know, before Dance Moms, I did a lot of judging all over the country and in Canada and I networked and I go to a lot of conventions and competitions, so all the best dance teachers in the country are my colleagues. And anytime something is new, I think people are a little bit hesitant. But after the show starts airing I think we’re just going to have kids coming out of the woodwork trying to get on the show.
CGM: It is a rather exceptional opportunity …
AM: The prize is $100,000 and a full four-year scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City. And I just learned that they’re also playing for the mother to live in New York for that time!
CGM: For four years?!
AM: I know! I couldn’t believe that!
CGM: Speaking of the mothers, how much do their decisions and actions factor into whether or not their children are sent home? If you have a really great dancer with a really atrocious mom, do you have to sacrifice one because of the other?
AM: I don’t really see the moms. I don’t deal with the moms. I don’t interact with the moms. I just judge the kids on stage — what I see right in front of me. All of the reality that plays out, I’m not privy to any of that.
CGM: I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that that is a welcome change from Dance Moms for you …
AM [laughing]: Absolutely! I love it! This is what I do. Many of people have said that to me and I’ve had a lot of my alumni that are working and living here in LA they’ve come to support me and sit in the live audience and see the show, and I have friends and colleagues and professional choreographers, other producers, they come and watch the show and they all say, you are truly in your element now. This is what I am best at at this point in my life — is to be able to sit back and look at a piece, look at the student, look at the choreography, look at the technique and tell them what they need to fix. That’s probably what I’m best at, taking an advanced student and just tweaking them to be a professional working dancer in the industry.
CGM: There is quite an age range on the show — are the children judged equally or do you take experience levels into consideration?
AM: The age was originally 12 and under. But the show was going to start [filming] last April and that’s a big time for competition for dance studios and teams. I really didn’t want these kids stabbing their teams in the back to come do a television show, so waiting until summer when Nationals was over for us, for myself, for the Dance Moms kids, for the Abby Lee Dance Company, as well as all the other studios in the country, it just made sense. So what happened is a lot of the girls that were 12 and were right at the age limit have now turned 13.
CGM: But you have one child who is 6, competing with those 13-year-olds, correct?
AM: There was a 6-year-old. She has now turned 7. And … well, I can’t tell you [laughs]! But she’s holding her own. And as judges, we know that she is six and we take that into consideration, yes.
CGM: You and your fellow judges have varied resumes — do you defer to one another in certain areas or do you all make decisions together?
AM: We all work together to make the decision. However, I’m the one who is currently working with children. But they certainly know their stuff. Robin Antin auditions young ladies for the Pussycat Dolls for the clubs all over the country, so she knows what she’s looking for and she knows who can sing and who can dance and who can’t. Richie is young and innovative and contemporary and just full of life and energy. He’s doing an amazing job. And he really knows his stuff, too. Just the other day he reamed me out on my hip-hop terminology, which he could write a book about. But again, he works with adults. So they’re kind of amazed that the kids are so talented and I’m like, “That doesn’t amaze me because I work with talented kids all the time.”
CGM: So you’re the expert on kids who could evolve into the adult dancers they will eventually work with…
AM: I, in my everyday world back in the studio in Pittsburgh, create the dancers for them to hire.
CGM: So tell me what it’s been like becoming a reality television star with two shows in the course of barely a year?
AM: It’s just crazy! I quit traveling with hot rollers and a curling iron because I always have someone to do my hair. Even when I’m not on the set and I’m not working, if I’m going to an event, I just drive over to the set and say, “I need my hair done! Hurry up!” I get these crazy emails — like Gloria Estefan. She said, “We just saw the show and you’re so talented and these kids are amazing!” Just about the talent, about the kids, about the choreography. That’s what people talk to me about.
CGM: I think it’s pretty safe to say that Dance Moms does not exactly present you in the most flattering light. But you’re sometimes a much kinder, gentler Abby Lee in your “Dear Abby” videos on the Lifetime web site. Do you wish that side of you could be incorporated into the show more often?
AM: Anybody that has children should get it — when you tell them to pick up the nightgown that’s lying on the bedroom floor, the first time you just say it. The tenth time, you’re a little irritated. The thirtieth time, you’re going to make them eat the nightgown.
So on television, that’s what you see. You see the thirtieth time I tell Paige something. She’s 11 years old — going to be twelve. Why do I have to tell her anything more than once? If you really want to do this, then listen to what I am telling you and make it happen!
And you have to realize something else: I know these mothers. They’ve been in my studio for as long as ten years before the TV show started to happen. So I feel they should be grateful. I feel they should say thank you. Their kids are on national television every week. That didn’t happen to the studio down the street! They feel like everybody owes them something. And I don’t like to teach kids that. I like to teach kids to write thank-you notes and to be grateful. And hey, we got lucky. We all got lucky. Let’s do something with that! You know, the moms are doing this and doing that, and I’m like, can’t they take the kids to Children’s Hospital and take the kids to perform? Can’t they go and do meet and greets there and put a smile on some kids’ faces that are terminally ill? Does it always have to be about making a quick buck? That’s upsetting and that annoys me and I’m glad to be away from all of that.
But as far as this all happening, it’s been incredible and I’m certainly grateful. And if I can do something else, if I can do something more in a child’s life, then I’m all for that.
CGM: So do you especially welcome the chance for the Dance Moms audience to see you in another environment, another light with Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition?
AM: I do think it shows me in a little bit different light — certainly a better light. I know my craft. I sit there, I watch, I judge — I’m helping. It’s not me being mean. It’s not me yelling at a mom. But then again, these moms aren’t questioning me. These moms are very respectful.
One of the little girls had an interview and somebody — and they probably shouldn’t have — but they told me they asked what was the best thing about being here, and she said “Meeting Abby Lee — getting corrections directly from her.” That’s incredible to me.
CGM: How has the show affected your business? In recent Dance Moms episodes, we’ve seen you discussing the need to drum up new business — but observing the Twitter universe and the comments section on blogs, I’m hard pressed to believe that you’re not overrun with requests.
AM: It’s really a strange thing! There’re probably seven dance studios within a 7-mile radius of my studio, and I’ve lost kids to them because of the show, because they’re jealous that they’re not on the show.
I want to welcome new students. I want to encourage people to come. I don’t understand why people would not say, “Hey, this woman is on national television and now she has two TV shows — we’re going there! We want the best for our child.” And my rates aren’t any higher than anyone else’s.
CGM: Assuming that the new show is a success, would you be game for continued seasons of Dance Moms AND Abby’s Ultimate, even if it means you’ll probably never rest?
AM: Absolutely! I know it’s going to be hard work, but I’m a workaholic. I work 24 hours a day.
But I think there needs to be some changes on Dance Moms. I think it needs some new things. Some of the kids are getting older, and I think the parents are going to continue to look like idiots if they continue to question my every headpiece and my every judgment. I think some new things are going to arise — you know, when kids turn into teenagers and preteens, things happen. So I hope we’re going to get some new stories out of those things happening and as the kids grow up and everyone matures a little bit. It’s different having a ten-year-old than having a fourteen-year-old. So we’re working on that. It might be exciting to do some different things with the kids and maybe not a competition every single week. Maybe some performances. Maybe some traveling.
Who knows! Who knows what’s in store! It’s a reality show so anything can happen. I always tease the cameramen that as soon as they turn the cameras off and we wrap for the night, the keys are locked in the car, or the car won’t start, or the dog is locked in the car with the keys — and I’m like, “Why are they not filming this?! This is my reality!”
Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition premieres Tuesday, Oct. 9, at 9/8CT on Lifetime.