After last week’s heated, tear-stained Dance Moms Season 6 finale saw Maddie and Mackenzie Zeigler and their mom Melissa Gisoni bid farewell to the ALDC and the series, the trio and their costars return for the first of a trio of reunion-style specials Tuesday, May 10 at 9/8CT.
Hello and Goodbye — hosted by former Queer Eye star Jai Rodriguez — will follow the trio’s last days with the team, rehash Season 6 drama and feature a performance by the junior elite team. The moms also get the chance to bring up final grievances, and the new “mini” moms will talk about the future of the ALDC.
We talked with Rodriguez — a longtime (and delightfully opinionated) Dance Moms fan — about taking the reunion-show reins from the show’s executive producer Jeff Collins, meeting Abby and the cast for the first time, running the show his way for the sake of the fans and his predictions for the girls’ futures.
Channel Guide Magazine: Surprised to learn you are a Dance Moms fan! How did you wrangle the gig hosting the specials?
Jai Rodriguez: Honestly, I am friends with the executive producer. He’s seen me host a bunch of nightlife things that I’ve done basically from the beginning of my career since Rent, before Queer Eye, until present day. I think when he saw I could wrangle a bunch of drunk people at a bar and still keep everyone entertained, he thought, “Oh God, he’ll be perfect for Dance Moms. There is nothing Abby Lee could throw at him that would halt things.” [Laughs]
I was a fan of the show, so it was a really good fit. The hard thing was, as a fan, to remove myself and just interview them as per what happened in the episode and not infuse my own stuff!
CGM: I wondered about that …
JR: Yeah. You have to try to stay somewhat neutral. There were moments where I couldn’t help it; some questions have a little bit of … tone. Just because I felt like I was asking them for the viewers, so there were a lot of times where some things were obvious.
This season takes a really, really dark turn in the beginning, because obviously Abby was having a difficult time. She opened a new business. She had a very public legal situation that we couldn’t talk about. So it was just a whole heated thing where we were tiptoeing around it, as you see in the episodes as they play out and the tone of the show, it left the audience wondering, “What the heck happened?”
That, coupled with the fact that Melissa, one of the original cast members, is leaving the show for good — her daughter got another job so she and both daughters are leaving the show — it became a whole elevated thing, and I was giving it like no other.
CGM: I can only imagine. I have to admit, I skipped this season. I used to recap Dance Moms for a long, long time and I had to give it up because so many bad feelings!
JR: I hear you. I think a lot of people have felt that way. And those who checked back in this season were kind of shocked because you see Abby — the one that wins kitschy awards for being like “Best Villain,” “Best TV Villain” — in this season, she really breaks. Whatever is happening in her personal life, you see a more vulnerable Abby and it gives you pause.
I remember telling Abby that as I watched episodes ahead of time — because many of them hadn’t aired before I shot the reunion — I was emailing the producers and I was like, “Oh my God, oh my God!” I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that Abby, who seems so strong — and in many ways she truly is — and secure, just to see her sort of break showed her humanity in a lot of ways. I think it kind of tested where she is as a teacher, but also as a person, and that is exposed on the show. I was like, “What is happening?!” It was a really interesting season for me to jump in as the host of the reunion.
CGM: Was this the first time you actually met Abby Lee?
JR: I actually presented her with an award at the NewNowNext Awards for best TV villain. Many times, you’ve been at red carpet events where people are like, “Oh yeah, Abby and you should get together.” I don’t think she really knew my full professional history, but as it turns out — aside from having some crossover in the industry, as ourselves, as adults — a lot of her alumni, a lot of people who went through her program, I worked with on Broadway. She’s got hundreds of kids who leave her studio and may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue the way Maddie was for the Sia stuff — but if you’re in New York, you know them and they are really spectacular, special, outside of the box performers.
I think that, for better or for worse, however people feel about her methodology and the way she trains people, she’s got a couple of people that, if you’re a New Yorker, you know these people. An incredible dancer/choreographer named Mark Meyers who is just ridiculously talented. Allie Meixner. All these different kids who went on to star in Broadway shows, or became featured dancers in different arenas, or even just teach — and they all came up through Abby’s studio that was on the show. It’s just really interesting because I, as a viewer early on, really didn’t know about that.
As I was telling people that I was hosting the show, people were like, “Oh, I went there. I went there.” I was like, “What?” We got to bond a little bit about that on the show.
CGM: I get that she was at the mercy of the producers to an extent, but I always wondered why she cultivate that aspect of her personality and her story instead of building herself into someone who created and inspired so much vitriol.
JR: I will say this; I don’t think Abby is the most PR-savvy person. Because, of course she has the personality that she has and of course she knows that it is probably that which has propelled her to somewhat become a household name, sure — but I think the flip side is, she’s been doing television long enough where she could be a little savvier about what she shows and still be entertaining without fearing people judging her. But I don’t think she sees it that way.
For me and you and many other people, we’d be really cautious about the way we were depicted and so we would curb our actions to be equally entertaining, but maybe not be considered a bully or any of those sorts of jabs that people throw at her.
The interesting thing is, when I did the kids’ special, which is next week, Abby was not on set for that. It was just the girls and me and that’s a really different energy, because the girls have all come up through the program, they are uber popular all over the world with millions of Instagram followers apiece and it’s outrageous. And I think they are the most well-adjusted group of girls I’ve ever met working in television. Because I have worked with a lot of kid actors and sometimes they’re really affected by the business. These kids — and I don’t know if it’s because they’re dancers first and there’s a lot of discipline to that — but they were so attentive and respectful to the adults who they were working with. They took direction well, they were candid and honest about their experience and about what they liked and disliked about Abby’s process.
They do get an epic moment where I asked them, “if you could say any thing to Abby right now, to her face, without fear, what would it be? That moment was amazing, because the girls at first were pretty timid.
CGM: I’m not sure there could be a “without fear” there…
JR: Right? Exactly. But one of them got it going and then from there on in, they kind of just released what they really wanted to say. But the odd thing is, they all really love Abby and they feel really great compassion for the way the fear played out in her personal life — which she was candid about in the media, so I don’t feel like I’m talking out of school.
You can see that these people, because they were on the show for six years together, have become a family, and in essence, the family is being broken apart because now with Melissa leaving the show and taking her two daughters, Maddie and Mackenzie, it really is a different dynamic. And also this year, the show brought in the minis — which is a smaller, younger group of girls — and their moms, and there was that tension. The moms that were there from the beginning felt like, “No, no, no! You don’t get to come in here and be on equal playing ground with us. We’ve paved the way for you.” They wanted a hierarchy system.
It was just really interesting. I took dance class a little bit my junior and senior year in high school, but I don’t think I was exposed to this culture, this dance mom’s culture and all that it takes to be a successful dance mom — and, therefore, have a successful child who’s in that arena. To be honest, I thought a lot of it was produced for the show. When I was on set I was like, “Oh, wow this is really for real!”
I kept texting my roommate, I was like, “So this is, like, totally real.”
CGM: Now it seems like every little girl gets put into dance classes, with the makeup and hair and ridiculously spendy costumes even for toddlers. It became a phenomenon after my daughters were older, but my niece was definitely smack in the middle of it, so I would tag along with my sister and it was just like, “Oh my God, these women are just umbilically connected to this experience and the importance that they get from this experience.”
JR: I agree with that. It’s like the importance of the experience, what it means to each mom, is different and they all unify in the thought, “I want what’s best for my daughter; I want her talent to be nurtured and guarded.”
There are a lot of things to consider. Abby’s style, what she’s most known for, is that beautiful, lyrical kind of dance that Maddie became famous for. Those are the kind of numbers that were mostly featured on the show, so if you’re the kind of dancer who is, lets say, a hip-hop dancer — even an exceptional hip hop dancer — it’s very rare that you get to showcase that on the show. We have a cast of girls who are obviously super savvy in television and they all make you fall in love with them. Not all of them are the best at every single area of dance. Some have a different type of dance style than others, but they are being forced to do these numbers together.
That’s interesting, because in many ways, that’s kind of the way it is in real entertainment. Sometimes you get cast and put with people and are doing different things that stretch your ability to grow as a performer. People are like, “What was it like, working with Abby?” And I would say, “She’s not warm and fuzzy at all.” But for some odd reason, in my life, the Abby Lee Millers have always been the kind of woman and friend that I was attracted to, so I’m like, “I’m going to love them until they break down and just deal with me being around and appreciate me … .”
Look, she can cuss me out, she can say whatever she wants to me, but at the end of the day, Abby doesn’t sign my check. I have a big career outside of this. That was my attitude walking in. There was no fear for me, and, I actually do respect her choreography and the kind of legacy she left behind. Do I agree with her methodology? The way she does things all the time? No. That’s totally not the way I grew up. That’s not the way I was able to jump straight from high school into my first Broadway show at 18 years old. I didn’t have that kind of discipline — but that’s what makes her and the show so memorable. This is season is really fascinating. To see a softer, more vulnerable — even scared and frightened — Abby is a really interesting juxtaposition to everything we’ve seen in the past.
CGM: So far, the show has not been renewed for a Season 7 — although they always take their time with that — so did you get the impression that maybe she was starting to feel that maybe the end of her television time is coming and that she needed to present herself in a little more kinder and gentler fashion — and as a trustworthy, by the book and by the law dance instructor and studio owner — for the sake of her businesses?
JR: I wish it was that, because I think that’s what she should have done. That’s what I would have done. Unfortunately, when you see the reunion, you’ll see that’s not the path she chose to go down. I think the interesting thing is, for me, that’s exactly what I would have done. I would have been really deliberate and I would have been like, OK, if my star dancer and her sister, who’s also great, and their mother who is great television are leaving the program and leaving the studio — had it been me, I probably would have played that up a little bit more. But Abby pretended like she was immune to emotion — but ultimately the emotion did come up and got the best of her.
They’re going to be living in Los Angeles, doing some work and not competing with the team — they may compete, but I think that was up in the air when I did the reunion, if Maddie and Mackenzie will still compete with the team off –camera. So really she was losing three people that she had been with and had been very tight with for a long time.
CGM: Did you see any cracks in the veneer?
JR: You know, she’s a human being like everyone else, as much as she sometimes tries to hide it. I think there were some really lovely, touching moments, and some unexpected moments. Of course, the reunion got heated. She totally got heated. She got upset about a lot of the questions I asked her — which were about true, factual things that she talked about in the media or that I had seen on the actual show. And I always came at the question in a way that the viewers would want to know, because they care. It was never an effort to berate her or to judge any of her behavior; it was really just trying to get the story out and allow her the opportunity to clarify. Because I think that’s when these reunions can be a great way to redeem yourself when you watch the playback for the clips we talked about.
This process has been super interesting — I know that for sure. I don’t know about their pickup, but at the end of each reunion I was like, “All right, we will see you next season for a whole new …” — I was tossing it to next season as if it is happening. I don’t know if they’ve gotten a green light for the next season at all, but I know that if the show is winding down, then Abby’s TV career will not be winding down. I know that she has other projects in the works and I know that she still realizes that it is a global brand and it has allowed her the opportunity to travel the world and do master classes and stuff. I don’t think that she’s ready to give that up. But that’s my own little guess.
CGM: My frustrations with the previous reunion shows is that Jeff Collins started out softballing everyone and, a few seasons in, he just kind of looked like he checked out. It got to the point where you just tuned in to see what the mothers were wearing, endured them snipping at each other again and patiently waited for the performances that happened in the middle. So I’m relieved to hear you say that you went right out there and tackled what the fans really want to know.
JR: Exactly — and there was a lot of surprise for me, because again, I was there sort of as a fan, so I’m able to ask the questions that are on everyone’s mind. I was actually quite surprised with the way that people answered. I’m hoping all of that makes it to the edit, but for me, I think the best part of the show is the fact that they’re at a crossroads, right? They can either deal with the fact that Melissa is leaving, move forward and come together and try to figure out what the next path is, and what their goals are. And from actually being on set, it kind of felt like the other moms were thinking, “Great! This is my daughter’s shot. With Maddie gone, there is that star-solo position.” Many of the other moms have been there from the beginning, or just a couple of seasons after, so everyone’s hoping for their daughter to be the next star.
I’ve got to say, after working with the girls individually in the girls’ goodbye show, they’re all kind of superstars. From JoJo, who’s got this Miley Cyrus-esque personality — there’s no other way to describe it — she has this rasp to her voice, she’s a singer, she’s a dancer, she is hilarious. It is very bizarre for me, a man in his thirties, to think a tween is comedy gold, but her comic timing is incredible.
Then you have incredible dancers on the show that you know are going to have a life and a career outside of this show. Kalani is another one who is just super great, and Nia is just fabulous and she is very smart and thoughtful. She was talking to me about the way she posts on social media. She’s aware that these kids get trolled. There’s a lot of people out there who say very mean things on social media, to kids, which is shocking to me. Their attitude about it is always very positive. They’re a nice group of well-adjusted kids.
CGM: Let’s back up to the moms for a minute. Can you give me your impression of them and how, if at all, they differed from how you thought they’d be from watching the show?
JR: Absolutely. I think that first of all, I knew the show and I’ve done reality, so I was already sensitive that they were opening up and sharing their story in a public way. Then, when I saw and met the women, I think they were pleasantly surprised that Jeff wasn’t doing it, because Jeff is the owner of the company. It’s a little like, “Oh great, my boss who sees all the footage is now asking me questions.” I think they were all relieved. All the moms were really great to me. They were happy that I was there. I’m not going to be judging them for whatever they did on the show. I am aware it’s television, so I think they were all kind of relaxed.
Melissa was really, really great and came right up to me and was super sweet. Jess, which is Jojo’s mom, she was great. She and I have remained friends and I think I’m going to be going to Jojo’s thirteenth birthday party soon which is really fun because I’m like, “Oh my goodness, I haven’t been to a kid’s birthday party in forever.”
Then we have a lot of video packages from previous moms saying goodbye to Melissa. Some are very sweet messages. And some are not. [Laughs] I’m trying to think of some of the best standout moments between me and the moms. Melissa and I probably hung out the most. Melissa and Jess, we chatted a bunch. How did they describe themselves? They basically said they’re a happy, crazy, dysfunctional family. Which I think is accurate.
I also thought Kira was great. Kira is Kalani’s mom and she is a no-nonsense, say it like you mean it, gal. She doesn’t care about likes, she doesn’t care about playing the game, about being seen in any way other than honest, direct, upfront and real. That was really refreshing — especially in reality TV — to see. Also I thought Jill is great. Her daughter Kendall is gorgeous and just a sweetheart.
CGM: …which is a miracle, given all the abuse that poor kid took.
JR: Could you imagine? Could you imagine?
I mean listen, I was told the moms don’t drink, which made me so sad, because all I ever wanted to do was go out and have some Chardonnay with them! But I guess they can have apple juice while I drink. [Laughs] Jill was a doll. She was delightful. She’s kind of like the Alpha Alpha in the bunch. She’s matter-of-fact.
Then Holly — doctorate Holly — Holly would be the one I would go to if I needed to get the real story out. She was the most non-biased about a lot of the stories, so it was easy for me to go to her and get the real truth, in case people would give me a censored version.
CGM: I was among the bazillion people who, when Holly got her doctorate and then promptly dropped out of academia and became solely a Dance Mom mom, was like, “What are you doing?” But that show needed her so much.
JR: She grounds them. I think, at this point, they all have a mutual respect for what the other parents do and the other lifestyle choices that they have. Their kids are in high demand, so all of a sudden, from being a dance mom, you’re now literally like a stage mom and you have this child, who is a child, and you’re trying to give them the best opportunities possible.
And they have a lot of opportunities, so it’s interesting to watch the mothers try to navigate this while we’re shooting the reunion. They are all on their phones doing stuff and these girls will probably have their college paid for before they graduate high school. Which is great. How many of us wish we could have done that? Plus, they’re very strict with them about their social media and what and how they post, which, in this day and age, is so necessary, because it’s such a slippery slope. Listen, I was expecting the girls to have attitude. I thought they were going to be a little entitled, because they are famous and because of the way Abby has taught them throughout the years. I thought they’d be jaded. But they call me their Guncle — their gay uncle — and they were the sweetest.
I came into it thinking, “if a teenage girl starts telling me off, I’m going to have to correct her. How’s that going to look on camera?” But Holly and Nia, sweet professionals. Melissa took a lot from Abby throughout the years and we see that in some of the clips, in a way that I would never, ever let somebody speak to me, the way Abby, at moments, spoke to Melissa. But they have a calm dynamic, and they were friends. They were more like sisters in many, many ways.
Jill, to me, she is just the pack leader. She is the one who takes the reins. People need to go through Jill to get approval, especially the new moms. They all have strong, strong opinions about how you behave and why. I found that fascinating too.
CGM: Another reason I stopped doing the recaps was I was picking on these women — never the girls — and how they went at each other and I got tired of mean-girling. Plus, in the comments section, some folks could be just merciless — toward each other and toward the kids. I couldn’t be the group leader of that any longer. Did you get the impression they were weary of setting that sort of example, too?
JR: Exactly — and I think that’s the other thing too. People forget these are not girls who are acting. We are following them around, their real life in heightened situations that are not normal. For instance, we had an audience full of fans — as opposed to just a studio audience — crying and screaming. They know everything about these girls; they know everything about the moms. So these girls can’t just go to the mall. I wasn’t aware of that. I think Maddie’s got five-point-something million Instagram followers, and some others, like 3.2 million. Outrageous!
We did a selfie challenge and I was so proud of my two hundred and eleven likes at the end of the hour and they all had hundreds of thousands of likes for the picture —I was furious. But I get it, and I think what will come of this now will fascinate me. I think these girls are not going away. I imagine that as Dance Moms continues — because I’m pretty sure it’s going to come back for another season or two — many of these girls will leave and go off to sitcom work. I see a lot of them in that Disney/Nickelodeon space as actors, because so many of them — JoJo, specifically.
Jojo and Mackenzie, I can see, like, yesterday on a sitcom. They are so charismatic. When they are on, they are hilarious. They’re like everything that you want in the lead girl of a sitcom with a That’s So Raven, kind of Hannah Montana vibe.
CGM: As Maddie’s star continued to rise, it floored me that Abby didn’t do more to try to champion the rest of the girls into that same sort of stardom. Because they aren’t going to be with her forever, so why not be as much a part of their rise to stardom as you can, while you can?
JR: That’s the push-pull. That’s the jealously, and that’s the push-pull. “When are you going to do that for my daughter? When does that happen? When does Kendall’s album drop? What’s happening with Kalani’s career?”
I think as much as Abby wants to have her hand in all the cookie jars, I personally as a human being who is working person in this industry, am like, “I think that’s a little too much for one person like Abby to manage with everything she’s got going on.” But this is now the opportunity with Maddie and Mackenzie off the show. I think the other girls will be focused on a lot more and we’ll see probably sides of them as performers that we never knew existed — because they weren’t given that moment to shine, or, if they were, they didn’t have the confidence because everything was always about Maddie in many, many ways. The catchphrase was, “Who do you think is going to be the next Maddie?” I think what we’re trying to say is, who is Abby going to favor now?
CGM: But as you said, Melissa endured a lot. She took a lot from Abby, and she took even more from the moms — but it wound up paying off. And her girls still are really nice young women. But I was also a Christi and Kelly fan because they’re didn’t put up with it. They didn’t sacrifice their and their daughters’ well being for the sake of the show.
JR: That all comes up. It’s really, really, interesting to see how it plays out. Then to see with someone new — because remember, I’m new and I’m not their boss — how they navigate that. It starts very polite and everyone’s in their gorgeous dress and everyone’s pulled together and it just sounds so good and I’d just be so sad — and then we go in. There’s the clip stuff going and they’re seeing them for the first time and having the emotions around them. It gets pretty entertaining!
CGM: So I get to see Christi and Kelly?
JR: You’re going to have to watch it. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Jai Rodriguez hosts Dance Moms: Hello and Goodbye, premiering Tuesday, May 10 at 9/8CT and Dance Moms: “The Girls Say Goodbye,” premiering Tuesday, May 17 at 9/CT on Lifetime. You can also see him in Season 2 of Grace and Frankie, now available on Netflix.