Dance Moms talk about being part of Lifetime's top reality program


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Not for nothing is Lifetime promoting "Dance Moms" with a parody of the music video "Maniac."

With echoes of Jennifer Beals hoofing up a storm in the 1983 film "Flashdance," it shows the young ladies of Penn Hills' Abby Lee Dance Company wearing the character Alex's trademark black leotard and leg warmers.

Then there is Abby Lee Miller herself, impressively working the choreography while the Moms gather nearby. The video -- which has been running for more than a month to promote the New Year's Day premiere of Season 3 -- ends with Ms. Miller leaning back in the iconic pose and pulling a cord. Instead of water splashing down on her, as in the movie, it's the mothers who get doused.

'Dance Moms' gather at Rivers Casino

The "Dance Moms" gather at Rivers Casino to talk about their Lifetime television show. (Video by Nate Guidry; 12/27/2012)

Promo for season premiere of Lifetime's 'Dance Moms'

Lifetime released this promo for the Jan. 1 season premiere of the Pittsburgh-set "Dance Moms." (Lifetime video; 12/23/2012)

We get it: Abby's a maniac.

She is also a full-out reality star, recognized in airports and restaurants. The show has been picked up internationally. In the first episode of the new season, Ms. Miller's hair, makeup and nails are noticeably more glam.

The rest of the cast will be going glam as well. On New Year's Day at the Rivers Casino, there is a viewing party for the premiere of Season 3. Tickets were not for sale, but Rush Rewards members could win them at the casino during December.

Ms. Miller and Dance Moms Melissa Gisoni, Kelly Hyland, Holly Hatcher-Frazier, Christi Lukasiak and Jill Vertes are headlining the event, which features a welcome reception in the riverfront ballroom, then a meet-and-greet, dinner and large-screen viewing of the first episode. A guest moderator will host a Q&A with the cast afterward.

Not included in the festivities are the dancers, who are underage: Chloe Lukasiak (11), Nia Frazier (11), Brooke (14) and Paige (12) Hyland, Kendall Vertes (10) and Ms. Gisoni's daughters Maddie (10) and Mackenzie (8).

Ms. Miller and Dance Mom Gisoni were missing from the recent casino press event to promote the party; they were traveling from a dance competition in Florida.

The rest of the Moms were more than happy to dish on the challenges of living a reality-TV life and, as Ms. Hatcher-Frazier saw it, "parenting in a fish bowl."

In the case of "Dance Moms," Lifetime's highest-rated non-scripted program, the core group of girls and their moms are portrayed as victims to the whims of Ms. Miller, a loud, pushy force of nature.

Specifically, she coaches and choreographs, and it would appear she wants to run their lives.

On the program, the Moms don't mince words when talking to Ms. Miller, and they weren't shy with their opinions when sitting down with the media several weeks ago.

"I think our girls are learning coping skills," Ms. Lukasiak said. "One day, they'll be in a work environment and they will think 'This is nothing, compared to this woman I had to deal with as a child.' "

Even the sound of her voice makes them jump. "The kids will be sitting on the floor and we'll be preparing something and we're all in a relaxed state and Abby's not around ... and you hear [Ms. Lukasiak makes squawking noises] her voice!"

"And the kids will sit up immediately -- that voice! And a ridge just goes up your back and you know 'Oh God, she's here.' " Ms. Vertes said.

'Dance Moms'

Where: Season 3 premiere on Lifetime

When: Jan. 1 at 9 p.m.

"The fun is over."

Checks and balances

So, three seasons in, the question remains: Why do it?

"I don't want people to think we are irresponsible mothers, or we are in it just for fame and fortune, because that's not why we do the show," Ms. Hatcher-Frazier said.

"We are not famous, not rich," Ms. Lukasiak said, with Ms. Hyland chiming in, "People believe we are paid an inordinate amount of money, but we are not."

"That's why we take advantage of other opportunities, so there is money put away for them if they want to attend an Ivy League school or pursue a career in New York," Ms. Lukasiak said. "That's what is bothersome for us. We read all this criticism and think, 'You have no idea what's going on with the Moms.' "

Still, the perks are nice. Some of the girls have had modeling or scripted television opportunities. They met Justin Bieber. They have fans across the globe. The dancers, by all accounts, remain refreshingly non-bratty, just kids, and they realize they are filming an entertainment program, not a real-life drama.

In TV, what works often gets spun off into another show. So it is with "Dance Moms," which has seen a less-successful version called "Dance Moms: Miami" and the recently completed "Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition."

The latter was sort of a "So You Think You Can Dance?" -- if that show allowed family members to come along, hang out and fight with each other.

When production company Collins Avenue first approached Ms. Miller about a reality series set in her Penn Hills dance school, the mothers of some of her elite team members figured it was going to focus on the art.

"When we signed on, it was supposed to be a documentary called 'Just Dance,' " said Ms. Lukasiak, perhaps the most outspoken in a generally talkative cadre of moms.

Oh, their eyes were opened.

So-called reality shows such as "The Hills" made it acceptable for real people to pretend they were living their everyday lives for TV cameras. Except (wink, wink), some of it was scripted.

"I thought I would have a lot more control over what would happen," said Ms. Vertes, of Penn Township. She and Kendall arrived in Season 2, bearing silly gifts such as a bench for the studio and a traveling masseuse for Ms. Miller.

"Please ...," Ms. Vertes said, rolling her eyes when reminded of that particularly implausible twist.

"Kelly and I have adopted tweeting [during the show] and we [often] go 'THAT IS NOT HOW IT HAPPENED.' " Ms. Lukasiak said.

The Moms say their daughters might watch occasionally, and rarely entire episodes. The attention is probably toughest on Brooke.

"Brooke is very torn. She's in high school, and all of her friends are going to dances and football games. All of these [other dance] kids are the same age. They're going around the world with their best friends," Ms. Hyland said. "I have given Brooke the opportunity several times to be off the show, but I think her heart is in the dance. Still, there is a part of her that just wants to be a normal kid."

An ever-changing cast

Judging from the rotation of dancers and their moms who suddenly show up and just as quickly disappear, perhaps there should be a revolving front door at the Abby Lee studio.

An ongoing conflict between Ms. Miller and Cathy Nesbitt-Stein, owner of the rival Candy Apples studio in Canton, Ohio, is genuine, the Moms agree. For a time in the first season, Ms. Nesbitt-Stein's daughter, Vivi-Anne, danced with the Pittsburgh girls.

Then there was the Season 2 appearance of St. Louis resident Kaya Wiley and her daughter, Nicaya. They stuck around for one episode. Because a competition in St. Louis this season is on the show's dance card, viewers probably have not seen the last of them.

"I think Season 1 was the truest," Ms. Lukasiak said. "It had an authenticity to it, it had more heart, and that's what America identified with."

From the get-go, former educator Hatcher-Frazier appeared to be the most rational, soft-spoken of the bunch. The Moms recalled an infamous argument from last season, in which Ms. Miller told Ms. Hatcher-Frazier that the dance studio was her school, and she was principal.

"That was unusual for me, but it was very real," Ms. Hatcher-Frazier said.

This season, Ms. Miller gives herself a promotion: "She said, 'I'm God and this is my church,' " Ms. Vertes said.

"Last season she was the principal, and now she's God, and you can pray at the altar of Abby," said Ms. Lukasiak, who added she takes "copious notes" about the who, what and where every week of filming.

"What dances we did, what the main stories were, what was I feeling, where did we travel ..."

"It's for your mental health and well-being," Ms. Vertes said. "For when you think it was bad, but it really wasn't. Or that it was really worse [than you remember]."

Tuesdays are nerve-wracking for the Moms.

"You wake up that morning and think, 'How bad is it going to be?' " Ms. Hyland said.

They, along with millions of other viewers, find out Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Ms. Lukasiak said she lives for the time when the closing credits roll.

"My favorite time of the week is 10:01 on Tuesdays and I know I can breathe for the week."

tvradio

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published December 30, 2012 5:00 AM


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