Pittsburgh native steps up to be judge for 'Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition'
August 31, 2013 4:00 AM
"Broadway star Rachelle Rak, left, joins Richy Jackson and fellow Pittsburgh native Abby Lee Miller as judges on Ms. Miller's "Ultimate Dance Competition" on Lifetime.
By Maria Sciullo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Consider her the Abby antidote.
When "Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition" returns for its second season Tuesday, Pittsburgh native Rachelle Rak joins the judges panel.
Ms. Rak, 42, a self-proclaimed Broadway gypsy, is a force of sunshiny nature. Her nickname, "Sas," pretty much says it all.
"I don't think [Ms. Miller] knew they hired me," said Ms. Rak, laughing.
The ratings success of Lifetime's "Dance Moms," over three seasons spawned last year's "AUDC." Unlike "Dance Moms," which follows the weekly drama around a competitive dance studio in Penn Hills, "AUDC" is an actual competitive reality show.
Eleven young dancers ages 6-13 -- all girls, except for a brace of twin boys this season -- strut their ways through a challenging series of choreographies on stage in California.
At stake: $100,000 and a scholarship to the youth program at the Joffrey Ballet in New York City. Although none of this year's contestants are from Pittsburgh, the show has a strong Iron City flavor.
There's Abby, of course, the outspoken dance studio founder. But Ms. Rak, who grew up in the Banksville/GreenTree area of the South Hills, returned to her hometown earlier this year when a tour of the new musical "Flashdance" debuted here.
On "AUDC," She replaces Pussycat Doll Robin Antin. The third regular judge is celebrity choreographer Richy Jackson.
"My mother, Rose Kenneth, and [Abby's mom, Maryen] Lorrain Miller, had dance studios in Pittsburgh. ... We would watch each other at competitions, so there was this connection and respect. They knew who I was. I knew who Abby was," Ms. Rak said.
"But her mother was a contortionist and my mother was a tapper, so we were two different worlds."
In fact, by chance Ms. Miller happened to catch the first show in which Ms. Rak stepped in for the star when "Fosse" ran on Broadway, in 2000.
The Collins Avenue "Dance Moms" producers were looking for a Broadway tie-in when they hired Ms. Rak to choreograph and teach the girls a Fosse-type routine after Ms. Miller attended a performance of "Flashdance." Ms. Rak, who said they were unaware that she and Ms. Miller knew each other, was stunned by viewers' reaction to the episode.
"Just by being on 'Dance Moms' one time, my website got 18,000 hits."
During a week off from "Flashdance," Ms. Rak received a call from "AUDC" executive producer Bryan Stinson.
"Bryan was in my corner. You have to image Lifetime saying, 'Who is this girl?' I was not a Pussycat Doll," she said.
She brings to the reality mix something not often seen on "Dance Moms": a sense of dignity and hope that young dancers will learn and grow from their teachings.
"I was never put down, but my mother was honest. She told me what I needed to work on.
"My mom knew I wanted to be in show business. When I was 14, she sent me for singing lessons. I was a CLO [Civic Light Opera] mini-star for a few years, then I quit.
"She said, 'Are you sure you want to quit?' No one in Pittsburgh quits. I said, 'I just want to play basketball...' "
So she played basketball at Bishop Canevin High School and was on the drill team, the Crusettes. Ms. Rak got back into performing, and when she was 17, she went Downtown for an audition with the touring company of "Cats."
She was stunned to get the job and has worked steadily since. Now married to Andrew Hoey and living in New Jersey with him and stepson Stephen, she left the "Flashdance" tour with the understanding that, should it someday reach Broadway, she'll be back in the featured role of Tess.
In the meantime, her "day job" as a TV dance show judge was an eye-opener, she said. Young dancers can have a fragile sense of self-esteem.
"Abby has her way to tell them, and I have mine. You have to have balance ... you have to give them hope.
"They don't want to walk out the door and feel shattered; that's not what it's about. It's about trying to inspire, to help them define their path.
"There is nothing worse for a child than the fear that someone will pound them and tell them 'you're horrible.' That doesn't work for me. That's where Abby and I come from two different worlds.
"I respect the fact that she is a teacher and that's how she works. [But] that's not how I work."
Despite her many years performing live on stages, it might be an hourlong reality show that brings Ms. Rak the biggest exposure. She's not quite certain she's ready.
"I'm scared, to be perfectly honest. It's not something I'm used to."
But not long after taking a coffee break while home to visit her mom last month, Ms. Rak was ready to teach a class the next day with "Dance Moms" rival studio, the Candy Apples, in Ohio. She was also headed that night to a nearby Olive Garden for a reunion of the girls from her mom's studio.
There will always be more shows, more auditions, more choreography opportunities such as her recent stint with a major cruise line in Florida. So, perhaps fame will be scary, but who has time to worry?
Elsewhere in reality TV ...
• Another Pittsburgh native, Allison DeBona, was dealing with not only her own relationship worries but also that of friend and colleague Christiana Bennett on "Breaking Pointe" (The CW, Mondays). It was a rather sober hour of reflection, but viewers were teased with next week's trailer featuring one ballerina doing a pratfall during "Cinderella."
• Ambridge native Antoine Burton and Kareem Dawson didn't figure much in this week's episode of "Capture" (The CW, Tuesdays). Still, it was a highly entertaining hour of the hunt team -- British twin sisters who always speak in excited tones -- ineptly managing to sort of capture the requisite number of prey teams. Does it count that one of the captured was pretty drunk?
• Professional actor Kyle Kleiboeker couldn't deceive the girls team on "Summer Camp" (USA, Mondays) and was sent home. To his credit, as he gave an exit interview on the camp bus, he described his plight as "being thrown to wolves" and not "thrown under the ..." well, you know.
DuBois native Chuck Limes and his mates back at the cabin tried not to look suitably horrified that their scheme to get rid of someone else backfired.