Dance Moms: Televising childhood trauma since 2011


photo via Nicki Swift

It is often thought that a child’s lack of self-esteem is linked to what happens behind closed doors, but sometimes a child’s psychological destruction happens right before our eyes—and no one says a word.  


The show “Dance Moms” aired for the first time in 2011. Following The Abby Lee Dance Company’s elite competition team, this Lifetime reality show focuses on the lives of young dancers who observe an intensive rehearsal schedule and attend weekly competitions. 


Abby Lee Miller, the studio owner and dance instructor, creates a rigid and often hostile environment for the girls, encouraging them to “save their tears for the pillow” if they become overwhelmed or are struggling. 


Meanwhile, the other pivotal characters of the show, the mothers, put the “I” in “team” with constant drama and fights over whose child is superior (which, in more than one incident, has resulted in violence). 


In season three, Christi Lukasiak, mother of dancer Chloe Lukasiak, got into a fight with Leslie Ackerman, whose daughter, Payton Ackerman, appeared on the team as a guest for several episodes of the show. This dispute occurred in the streets of New Orleans and evolved into such an intense altercation that members of the crew had to separate the two women. 


In season four, Kelly Hyland, mother of Brooke and Paige Hyland, argued with Miller over a comment she made about a new dancer replacing her daughter. This lead to a physical brawl between the two and sent their horrified young daughters fleeing from the room. Hyland left the team shortly after and filed a lawsuit against Miller. 


In season seven, Stacey Ketchman and Yolanda Walmsley—both mothers of dancers on the “minis” team (a later addition to the ALDC)—were involved in a verbal argument that culminated in Yolanda charging Stacey and placing her hands near her neck. 


These examples are just a few of many, and do not include the shouting matches and dressing room eruptions that resulted in broken relationships and tears of fear from the young and naive observers. 


With all of the drama from their mothers, it’s hard to fathom how these children learn to focus and memorize challenging routines in such a short amount of time, especially when Miller adds to the tension with her constant negative criticism and scare tactics. The show is replete with Miller degrading the girls and mothers, sometimes even going so far as to criticize their bodies or appearances. 


Chloe Lukasiak, an ALDC dancer until season four, recently released a video explaining the reason she left the show. Lukasiak suffers from silent sinus syndrome, a disorder which causes one of her eyes to look different from the other. Among other insults, Miller allegedly made an unaired comment calling her illness “ugly.” 


And Lukasiak isn’t the only one treated this way. Maddie Ziegler, considered a favorite of Miller’s, said in a 2017 interview that, at the age of 11, her life was characterized by stress and anxiety under Miller’s teaching. 


In 2015, Miller was charged with fraud. This led to a two-day hearing, which resulted in a sentence of one year and one day in prison. Then, in 2018, Miller was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a surgery that left her unable to walk. 


In June, “Dance Moms” aired its eighth season with a new cast of dancers. Despite her traumatic experiences, Miller remains unrelenting and brutal toward the young team members. 


Meanwhile, the drama between the mothers has further intensified. In recent episodes, the mothers have united against Michelle Georgiana, mother of Sarah Georgiana. They were formerly members of Studio 19, a rival studio that had taken to harassing the ALDC at competitions in the past. The mothers have blamed Michelle for the drama, saying that she had encouraged the attacks. 


Such bickering has taken its toll on Sarah, who in recent episodes has become so scared she cries and has difficulty breathing. When she could not hold back her tears in front of Miller, she was told to stop because it was so “annoying.” 


In light of all that has happened, it is remarkable that this show continues to be televised. When did adults being horrible to one another become amusing? When did fighting and tears become appealing to an audience? Above all, when did the destruction of a child’s feelings and self-worth become entertainment?