Suffice it to say that no one is more surprised than Yvette Walts to discover that the primary villainess of Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition is not the notoriously starchy star of the show, Dance Mom’s Abby Lee Miller — but rather the bubbly blond Walts herself.
The Evansville, Indiana, native and 28-year dance industry vet says she thought her 12-year-old daughter Hadley was vying for a spot on a new reality show called “My Kid Can Dance” and had no idea Miller would be even be involved when they hopped a plane for Los Angeles. But Abby Lee was only one of many surprises that awaited her.
As fans of the show well know, Walts promptly found herself embroiled in conflict with a number of mothers who clearly don’t, er, appreciate her energy, her methods and her dance-instructor mindset. And one mother — Kristie Ray, mother of 6-year-old dance prodigy Asia Ray — finally made it frighteningly personal.
I got Walts’ take on the moms, the competition and the show thus far the day before last week’s shocking episode in which she and Kristie nearly came to blows.
Channel Guide Magazine: I worry for you, Yvette — nearly stealing Abby Lee Miller’s show right out from under her with all this drama!
Yvette Walts: And I know she hates me for that. She takes it out on Hadley. So I don’t even care about Kristie after this episode, because my focus is more toward Abby with Hadley.
CGM: Did you and Hadley watch Dance Moms so you knew something of what you were getting into where Miss Abby is concerned?
YW: Oh my gosh, listen! We are such fans of Dance Moms, it’s not even funny! And I hate TV! I would rather read or I’d rather make up a new dance routine. I have so much energy that I’m not a sit-down type of girl, unless I’m reading an incredible book that I’m inspired by. But I am a fan of Dance Moms, just because it gave Hadley and I something common to do. And we used it as entertainment. Honestly, the first year I encouraged all my dancers to not watch it. I would say, “It gives us a bad name! Don’t watch it, kids!” Then Season 2 comes out and we don’t miss an episode. We have a recap every Wednesday at the studio about the Dance Moms from Tuesday night. The second year, for some reason, we all started getting a big kick out of it.
And we didn’t know Abby Lee was involved in this show! Leaving Evansville and going to Los Angeles, we had no idea that Abby Lee Miller was going to be there. Most of these kids have agents — Hadley doesn’t. We live in Indiana. C’mon! So we were referred to the show and we submitted to the show and did the auditions just like everyone else did, but I called back Los Angeles when they contacted me and I said, “Wait. I want to make sure. This is not Dance Moms, is it? Because if it is, I’m not interested.”
CGM: Little did you know. Out of all of the moms in the cast, you do seem to have the most past experience with dance and dance instruction. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
YW: I was a Junior Olympic gymnast — very competitive, myself — and I took dance because it was required. We had Russian ballet teachers. And then for fun, I asked my mom if I could take tap and jazz, as well. Being a very serious, elite-level competitive gymnast, I didn’t have a lot of extra time, but when I did, I was able to slide in a tap and jazz class. It was my outlet of fun, because gymnastics was so serious and so strenuous. Dance was an incredible outlet for me.
I ended up competing in dance after my gymnastics career. And I ended up having such an incredible passion for dance that I became a dance instructor and a choreographer and a judge — and then I ended up being a dance mom. I thought for sure Hadley was going to end up being an Olympic gymnast, but really she couldn’t stand gymnastics. So at the same time, I had her in dance class, because if you want to be a gymnast, you need to have dance as well. She decided that gymnastics was not her thing, but she loved dance. So she took dance and we just kind of ran with it.
CGM: Hadley is remarkably poised for her age — did that help assure you that she could handle whatever might happen on the show and in the competition?
YW: It did! As you’ve noticed, Hadley is a very serious kid. She’s obviously more like my husband [laughs]. She’s a kid I use as an example in the sense that she speaks when there’s something important to say. I just don’t have a lot of important things to say [laughs]!
But she is a very serious kid and what you see with Hadley is what you get when they interview her on the show. She wants to get things right. If Abby gives a correction, she wants to make the correction. She wants it to work. And the next time she gets out on stage, she’s praying and hoping that Abby is able to see that.
So her message to Elisabeth — the “We’re not here to talk about our life problems, we’re here to dance” — was meant in all kindness. That did kind of eat her up a little bit, when they showed that part. And sincerely, Hadley meant that in a very kind way. That’s the type of person she is. We were programmed that we were going there for a competition, we weren’t really programmed that we were going there and there was going to be all this additional drama. But it’s OK. I mean, it’s an incredible life lesson.
CGM: Does you think it helps you being a teacher for as long as you have and dealing with all manner of dance moms and dealing with the differing ways children react to pressure and competition?
YW: Oh, absolutely! I definitely make sure to teach all of my dance students, “You’ve got to expect the unexpected. So just be prepared. Be aware of your surroundings. And keep your game face on.”
You said you wanted Yvetteisms, so I’m just going to whip them out for you [laughs]. We’re definitely a family that says, “Go the extra mile because it’s never crowded.” Most people today in life just do enough to get by — that’s what they do. But if you want a little bit more, you’re going to have to strive for excellence in all that you do. So go the extra mile because it’s never crowded — I felt like that was what this opportunity was presented to us for. Because we are the type of people that do focus on purpose in the moment.
So Hadley’s strength along with her level of intellect, I thought, was definitely a benefit in doing this. And just her mental mindset — her program. I mean, we didn’t rehearse, “You’ve gotta risk it to get the biscuit.” And “don’t fight it, just invite it.” And, “Suck it up, buttercup!” We didn’t rehearse all that. Those are things that we say all the time! Because we have a job to do! And we’re in the moment — we’re in the moment of striving for excellence and being the best we can be in that moment. And through that process, we’re going to continue to grow and get stronger and learn from it.
I would definitely try to remind her we’re not stressed out, we’re blessed out. And all these little speed bumps that we were hitting along the way were just supposed to make us grow even stronger.
CGM: But the other mothers — at least most them — misinterpret that enthusiasm as something not to be trusted …
YW: They didn’t get that. They didn’t get me. When we were back at the casting episode and the kids had already danced for several hours learning the audition pieces, I’m the mom that’s out in the audience with all the other moms that said, “C’mon Moms! They need our energy!” And I start clapping and I yell at all the kids — not just my own daughter — I yell at all the kids, “C’mon kids! Work!” Just trying to give them my energy.
Well then guess what happens. All the moms — well, not all the moms — but so many of them look at me like, “What! Why are you so happy? Why are you yelling for everyone?” They just didn’t get my personality. I’ve never, ever been in a room full of competitive dance moms that were so guarded for their kids. Ever. In my entire life! It was amazing! I don’t know sometimes if it’s just a different thing in California or maybe people that come from bigger cities, that they’re so guarded for their kids.
CGM: Is it because this time there is so much more than a trophy, a sash and a title at stake?
YW: I know there was $100,000 [at stake] — but come on, moms! There’s one winner. One. And may the best kid on that final day win. But they would say to me, “Don’t you think your dance business would explode if Hadley wins this competition?” Well you know what? I hadn’t even programmed that yet! I never ever thought in my head, “Hadley’s gotta win this, because she is going to make my dance business explode.” My program was, “We are going to go and we are going to soak this up — and of course we’re going to try to win.” But you know what? I come from this industry. Twenty-eight years of coaching and judging and teaching. It’s an opinion. I might like kids with blond hair, while another judge on the panel likes kids with black hair. It’s an opinion. It’s not a spelling bee. So c’mon moms. Relax! Relax!
And like I said in the last episode, it’s a small world out there! I think the thing that they didn’t understand is that they could have so used me in so much more of a productive way instead of totally putting me on the defense and pushing me out. Why didn’t they use me?! All the people that I know in the industry and could have helped their kids get jobs? They forget that! You don’t know who I know that knows someone else that you’re going to need someday! Why didn’t they use me in a positive way and get to know me. Yes, it’s a competition. But we go to competitions all the time. And we walk into competitions it’s not that intense!
Now I know it’s not ever for $100,000. We’ve never done that before. But why should that change someone into a demon? It’s totally opposite, how the show is coming out. I’m the villain. And that’s OK. I can handle it. I mean, as long as Hadley continues to look like the good girl that she is.
CGM: I thought I’d seen it all in two seasons of Dance Moms. And I know that final editing is an interesting thing. But I’ll be the first to admit that I’m appalled at the level of physical aggression Kristie is displaying, especially when there are kids in the room. And you definitely bear the brunt of it.
YW: I told Kristie, as a teacher, that you have to understand when I work with kids, they’re a little product of their moms and dads. That’s what they are. I call your children a little mini-me, which is a mixture of you and your husband. Because that’s what the kids are. My prayer is that how Hadley is acting is truly showing America the roots that she comes from and what we practice at our home.
Have I ever been stuck in a snake pit or a lion’s den like that? Never in my entire life. And listen, I would say to myself, I’m either going to look like a coward in dealing with Kristie or I’m going to stand up for myself. And you know what? I have a lot of little kids and big kids watching this show, and for a moment, I just thought I’ve got to stand up for myself. I’m going to twist this when I get back to the studio and talk about bullying. If Kristie thinks I bullied her, that’s fine. She can have her own song and dance. But I have to let my kids at the studio know, “Listen, you know Miss Yvette’s true personality. I’m the person where the cup is half full. I’m the person that says, ‘It’s not an alarm clock — if it’s something that scares you every single day, we call that an opportunity clock. Because it’s a new day for a new opportunity. How you choose to take it and deal with it is your choice. But my cup is half full.’”
CGM: I did not have the chance to see the casting episode, so I’m wondering — were the moms and dancers brought together before the cameras starting rolling? Did you get some sort of hint of the personalities you were dealing with beforehand?
YW: No. Not at all. Cameras were on the first time that we all met — there was no warm up or a nice meet-and-greet or icebreaker. So I don’t know why I was Kristie’s target. Obviously, I didn’t see any of her private interviews until the casting episode.
I was taking notes — because I’m going to be the intelligent one with what I feel is the biggest dance education and background and I’m going to do my dance shorthand. I’m going to write notes of every move that the choreographer makes, because then I can rehearse them with Hadley. I didn’t know that Kristie was watching me take those notes and it made her on edge and it made her feel like she had to look out for me. That I was going to be the one on her radar. That’s not my problem.
I honestly had no communication or conversation with her — and then in wardrobe is the first time that she speaks with me and I said to myself, “I’m either going to look like a coward or I’m going to stand up for myself. And you know what? I think I need to stand up for myself.”
And, Lori, I couldn’t stop myself! Because never in my entire life have I come across anyone like that. And listen, after 28 years in the dance industry, I’ve dealt with everything. But not that.
So when someone invites you every day to take it outside, you finally hit a breaking point. And I didn’t really want to walk outside, because I really do like my teeth. But I finally felt like I’d reached that breaking point when I came in [to Briana’s and Asia’s duet practice] to see if our strategy worked. I felt like that was my job to do. And when she asked me to take it outside again, I thought I’m just going to say hit me and see how stupid she was. Because I knew if she hit me, she’d be off the show.
So I have to give her a little baby ounce of credit, because she wouldn’t.
CGM: Were you surprised she did let it reach that level within earshot of the kids?
YW: I would not ever do it in front of kids, and that’s why I hoped they would show me saying, “Your daughter is watching you!” Because Briana and Asia were right there when she came over to the chair that I’m sitting in, as I’m doing my job watching to see if the strategy that we had worked. And she said, “I’ve told her all about you, Yvette!” Well, you know what? If she said stuff to Asia that’s OK. Because, I’m a teacher, and Asia and I have a connection. And we had an even stronger connection when she would look around and her mom was not in the room. Because I know that as a teacher, Asia could fill my heart. I know she could.
CGM: So much of the drama seems to stem from the challenges, so I’m curious for your take on those. These kids are all at an age where fitting in and having your peers like you matters enormously. But the winners are often put in a position to choose something or do something that could upset the other kids.
YW: I teach my kids that if you feel you’re the right person for the job and you don’t vote for yourself, then maybe you’re not! It would be like the president right now not wanting to ask people to vote for him because he’s afraid they would think he was full of himself. That’s not it! You need to break it down and understand the process through your decisions. So that’s one thing I try to do as a teacher and as a mom to Hadley is to say, listen, I need to break this down for you — if you’re the person for the job you better vote for yourself! If you feel that that is something you want, you’d better vote for yourself. And if not, your level of confidence is not where it needs to be.
CGM: Let’s end on a happy note! Regardless of what has happened, and the outcome of the competition, you and Hadley have had the opportunity to work with some of the best choreographers in the business. What was that like for both of you?
YW: That was one of the best things about the whole show and the whole competition — the opportunity to work with Beyoncé’s choreographer, Beyoncé’s lead dancer, one of Michael Jackson’s lead dancers, Lady Gaga’s choreographer. When people ask about the show, those are the major positive things that we share with them. And there were some incredible kids and incredible moms that we got to meet. It was awesome. Even with all the other stuff, it was awesome!
New episodes of Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition air Tuesday nights at 9/8CT on Lifetime.
Images and video: Lifetime