During the summer of stage mothers, Lifetime’s Dance Moms emerged as a breakout hit for the network. From its debut in mid-July 2011 to its season finale this past week, the show steadily attracted more viewers (up 62% since its premiere). With about 1.6 million watching each episode, it’s not surprising that the network has given the green light to a 13-episode long second season. After the first episode, which I found quite shocking (even in the context of my previous research and experience with competitive dance), I had doubts that a second season would be possible. I couldn’t imagine the studio owner, Abby Lee Miller, agreeing to it, or many of the moms, given how negatively they were portrayed. But as the series has progressed I actually think Miller has emerged as more sympathetic; if I had to deal with some of these moms’ antics, I might be a bit brusque and stand-offish too.
The intra-studio competition is actually far more intense than the inter-studio competition. And this is mainly because of the dance moms who jockey for attention from the teachers and choreographers within their small group. Certainly, this type of behavior occurs in many kids’ activities, especially sports. I’m not sure it is typical of other small-group dynamics, like in firms and research groups? Perhaps others who study companies and firms know this research better and could share any insights. I found it especially interesting that whenever an outside threat to the core group emerged (like Crazy Cathy from Candy Apples), the moms banded together to defend one another and their studio. But they could easily, nastily turn on one another, including other kids in the group.
These highly charged competitive intra-studio dynamics are heightened on Dance Moms by the use of the dancer’s pyramid, which openly ranks the girls against their teammates each week. While most competitive activities have some understood hierarchy of top achievers, the show makes this internal, usually invisible, ranking clear. It’s emerged that Miller does not normally operate in this way, instead using this pyramid to (successfully) add extra drama to the show (thank goodness given the ages of the kids she works with). Nonetheless it captures how moms don’t just want their girls to succeed in the bigger pond of dance competitions, but also to be “the star” in the smaller pond of their Pittsburgh dance studio.
This week’s season finale, “There Can Only Be One Star,” plopped the girls into the even bigger pond of Hollywood. They tried out, and were featured, in a music video. It was a good opportunity for Abby to emphasize why her sometimes draconian teaching techniques produce successful, working dancers. For example, the moms who had complained about their daughters learning new routines each week admitted that they had to eat crow after they saw how quickly their girls picked up the choreography at the audition. The girls themselves commented that dance competitions helped prepare them to be evaluated at auditions, even though now there were forty judges as opposed to just three or four. And the youngest company member, adorable seven-year-old Makenzie, remarked: “Directors [of the music video] are kind of like Abby. They yell a lot.” While in Hollywood the girls also learned the very real, but tough, lesson that sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are—being successful means looking right at the right moment, which includes quite a bit of luck.
I’m curious to see if any other redemption arcs emerge in the second season… which might be hard given that the show has likely exacerbated many of the long-simmering group tensions by revealing not only how people act in their frontstage personas, but also backstage (it’s always amazing what people choose to reveal in one-on-one interviews knowing that those comments might be seen by millions, including those they have been talking about). I do hope that the second season features more of Abby’s senior dancers and her now-professional students, along with more backstory on the families (like, where are most of their husbands, and other children, and what do they think?), while dropping unrealistic touches like the pyramid and leading viewers to believe that the girls only compete a subset of their routines at each competition. The show is revealing not just for the dancing and the glimpse into the subculture of children’s dance competitions, but also for its insight into small-group dynamics in highly-charged, emotional situations.