Catching Up on TV, Part 1: The Summer of the Stage Parents

Yes, it's October, I know. But between reading, writing, and childcare I'm still working my way through my DVR from August (DVR may be this mom's favorite technological innovation, behind the iPad which helps me AND Carston). In previous summers I have done a wrap-up of stage moms and dance shows, but this year there were so many shows (either a good thing, or a scary thing, I can't decide), I'm breaking up the post into two parts. So, look for my thoughts on dance next week.

In the meantime, I'm talking about three shows I've previously written about:

1) Bet on Your Baby- I was actually surprised when ABC brought this show back for a second season. Not only did I find it pretty abhorrent, but I didn't think it got great ratings. Then again no Saturday night show is expected to draw a lot of eyes and this was probably pretty cheap for them to produce (you can tell from the hostess' wardrobe that they tape many in a single day). Actually this season had even more sponsors ("Walmart With Every Little Step Babydome" and "Luvs Baby Bio"), but there was also more diversity in the contestants this season. For instance, there was a grandma and a mom and not just male/female couples. It also seemed like there was fewer psychology games/experiments and more "fun" games. Still, when a parent bet AGAINST their child it was pretty painful, especially when the child pulled through. In one case it ended ok because the family won fun college tuition at the end, but I still worry the little girl will think her dad doesn't believe in her. One of the lines on the show seems especially true: "Where the stakes are huge and the competitors are miniature." I still find the show in bad taste, though less so than before, and hope it isn't back for season 3.

2) (Jon and) Kate Plus 8- This show came back for many more than three seasons and over the summer a one-off special ran updating people on the family's progress. What was most talked about though occurred on the media tour for the special when Kate had a very awkward live appearance with her eldest twins on The Today Show. In this case the show may have helped protect the kids somewhat by having other adults around, and at least they are getting some more income. But the Kate popularity train has basically left the station completely and it's all train wreck from here on out. Some day, one of them will write some tell-all. Nonetheless, I expect some sort of holiday special...

3) Kim of Queens- This show is still on, airing episodes from its second season, so I'm not completely tardy. And I actually like the show even more this season. The main reason why is that Kim Gravel remains the anti-Abby Lee Miller. In fact, she's so anti-Abby she asks one of her paying clients to leave because she can't deal with her mom, Angie. Angie and Marah still have appearances on the show (likely contractual), but even after Kim's sister tries coaching Marah it's clear Angie's style just doesn't gel with The Pageant Place. Good for them for standing their ground, and still being compassionate to Marah, while not worrying about the dollar and drama. I also love that Kim is aware it's not about winning any one specific pageant, but about the process to eventually win a big pageant, like Miss Georgia or Miss America. I especially loved when one mom realized she likes her tomboy daughter better, and Kim agrees that for two girls pageants aren't helping them. She knows they aren't a panacea, however you look, and she comes across as caring-- and funny. Someday I want to watch Miss America or Miss USA with HER!

Not all extreme parents shown on TV are stage parents, but believe me, quite a few are... Stay tuned for dance moms and dads next week for proof.

Teaching for a LIFETIME: My thoughts on Dance Moms, Bring It!, and Kim of Queens

Welcome to the world of Anti-Abby Lee Millers... Ironically brought to you by the network that made her famous, Lifetime. Building off the success (or infamy) of Dance Moms (a show I've written about quite a bit), the network debuted two new series this year: Kim of Queens and Bring It! Given the descent of Dance Moms into madness (it's one of the few "reality" shows where I believe some of the cast members truly hate one another, as evidenced by the arrest of Kelly Hyland), I guess it makes sense that someone had to be waiting in the wings and the network doesn't want to come off like Bravo, only creating drama-filled shows to make people famous. Dance Moms has become so divorced from reality with parents engaging in such egregious behavior that you have to think their contracts are so lucrative/ironclad that it's not worth stopping, or the only way to get off the show is to commit assault. In any case, I can't believe the show has made the players into stars,  as opposed to the negative backlash caused by Toddlers & Tiaras for many families. I mean, they now show the Dance moms (even relatively sane Holly!) painting on abs and arm muscles on their girls-- how is this any different from spray tans? I've asked this before because there are so many similarities between dance competitions and child beauty pageants for young girls, but so many more do dance that by sheer numbers it's not as marginalized as kiddie pageants. On top of the musculature-enhancing make-up, this year/season the girls often wear costumes with enhanced bust (though some are hitting puberty), which is also uncomfortable to watch at times. Also, the fact that sisters Maddie and Mackenzie (oh, excuse me, Mack Z!) are now homeschooled shows how far off the priorities have become and they are truly not kids living a competitive life, but performers 24/7. Despite all this drama, the show has managed to become boring because it's so formulaic. I for one would never want to go to a competition where the show is filming (for fear of rigging, delays, privacy issues, etc.); although I will admit that the show did give me a glimpse of one of my dance crushes, Blake McGrath, even if he did take a presumably large paycheck to work for Crazy Cathy, so I'm grateful for that

When Kim of Queens started I was initially a bit turned off-- and assumed they were looking to create a new Abby (and to fill the void creating by the cancelled Toddlers & Tiaras). With Kim Gravel portraying herself as country I thought she was trying to horn in on the Honey Boo Boo crowd as well. If that angle drew viewers initially though, it wasn't what made them (or me) stay because despite having contrived story lines and bring a bit silly at times, it became extremely clear that Coach Kim loves all her Pageant Place girls and truly wants the best for them. Her big heart (and voice and personality) and tears made for compelling viewing and her emphasis on growth, loss, and the long-term goal/win as opposed to the short-term win/title/crown was a refreshing message.  I of course know the show was staged-- especially so many of the gags with her own family-- and I disliked the way Kin of Queens brought in new girls all the time because the recruits didn't stick around often and it created extra drama when the natural story was more interesting. But overall it was a nice message, and for that reason the series hasn't been as big of a hit. I know Kim isn't always PC, but her comment about clogging being "tapping with hooves," made me laugh. Her aversion to clogging (even trying to transform it into Irish dance) is one example of her outsize personality and wackiness coming from a place of helpfulness and not pure egotism.


Dianna Williams of Lifetime's other new series, which has done well enough to warrant to additional episodes at the end of its run, including a sit-down reunion special, is similar. She is much tougher and even less diplomatic than Kim Gravel, but her students, the Dancing Dolls, face even bigger challenges (the fact that one of the girls' moms became a grandmother at 28 gives you a sense of the challenges in this community). I love that Dianna says she is preparing her "girls" for life and trying to teach them life lessons, which as you know I believe is possible through competitive activities and competitive dance, if done in a healthy way. Bring It! features a hop hop majorette team, which is a style of dance associated with the African-American community and affiliated with many Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The producers often defined dance terms and moves, which even differ from more "traditional" dance. At times I thought talk of "technique" was a bit of a stretch but chalked it up to a different style; but in the finale when a dance team aficionado who was judging complained about the lack of pointed toes I realized the Dancing Dolls were a bit lacking. That said, it was interesting to learn about a new type of dance and all the different categories of competition. The "stand battle" was the biggest component, but there were field dances, captain's dances, burlesque, character, etc. I am sure it is much more complicated than the show let on even so I'd love an insider's perspective! The other refreshing thing about the show was that the body was portrayed in a much less self-conscious way. Compared to the thin Dance Moms girls who paint on muscles, the Bring It! girls embrace their bodies whatever their size and dance with energy and enthusiasm as well (note that this is well known to be more common in the African-American community and black girls/women have fewer incidences of eating disorders and body image problems). I didn't always understand the costume selections, but there is clearly a tradition there. However, my biggest pet peeve was the ripped fishnet stockings and the dance tights showing over the top of the costume pants. That said, the fact many of the girls had to wear "nude" stockings for a different skin tone shows that dance companies should make colors in a wider variety of shades.

While Dance Moms is now so popular it is basically never on hiatus-- constantly doing clips specials and now creating a second team, and a THIRD series starring Abby!-- I'll be tuning in to the shows that feature more positive performance coaches with a more realistic and valuable message. Be sure to check them out, especially if you don't like Dance Moms!

Move Over Child Beauty Pageants: Another Summer of Dance (on TV)

Last year I proclaimed my love for the summer of dance-- and it's true again this year! It's also been a summer full of "morning" sickness for me, which means less time to write and more time prostrate in bed trying not to move. But one of the perks of being in bed so much is watching various TV shows and movies, which explains how I've been able to watch all these shows and movies... Seems like dance is really taking over our screens. Even Alana Thompson, aka Honey Boo Boo, has moved on from pageants to dancing (as seen on a recent episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, though thankfully NOT the scratch and sniff one...).

At this point I feel like Lifetime's Dance Moms bring much more crazy than Toddlers & Tiaras. I swear, the show has become so ridiculous (especially with Candy Apples nonsense) that if I didn't feel like I *had* to watch it for my work, I wouldn't (I know I'll feel the same way when Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition returns in the fall). You have to assume these moms are under strict contracts, getting insane amounts of money, or it's all scripted for them to allow their children to be in these situations.

So I didn't have high hopes for TLC's contribution to kids and dance, Dance Kids ATL. But, actually I was pleasantly surprised! Sure, there was some suggested momma drama, but I liked that the focus was more on families and on the kids (as the name implies). The style of the coach/choreagrapher reminded me more of the failed Dance Moms Miami and less of Abby Lee Miller. I also appreciated that it showed competitive hip hop (both in a cypher and in a competition-- though I'd love to see the kids at an actual hip hop competition and not just at a general dance competition) and a dance demographic not always recognized as serious in its own right by those who are "trained." This shows how the kids do learn counts, stretching, etc. I hope this gets picked up as a full series; I much prefer it to TLC's closest version, Cheer Perfection.

My other favorite reality dance series, Breaking Pointe, returned and it's interesting to get the updates on those featured last year-- especially the men with injuries. However, I had read that this season would have less personal drama, and that is definitely NOT the case thus far. So, please, more dancing and explanations of how companies work and less romantic entanglements! (FYI- that article I linked to is also interesting for the discussion of how being miked impacted friendships and how not all dancers in the company were happy to participate-- though I imagine the show has done wonders for Ballet West's ticket sales.)

During the worst of my sickness I rejoined Netflix and got to watch a ballet documentary that was similar in some ways to what Breaking Pointe does. The 2006 documentary Ballerina, about the Vaganova Ballet Academy and the company that performs at the Mariinsky was fascinating, showing different stages of a dancer's career-- and how much harsher teaching is in Russia! The women are absolutely beautiful in every way, so it's worth it for the clips of their practices and performances. It was strange to see the 10-year-old girls try-out for the Academy topless (surely cringe-worthy for a Western viewer), but interesting nonetheless. Here's the trailer:

(Of course I am DYING to get my hands on episodes of Australia's fictional version of their own national ballet academy, Dance Academy Season 3. If you love dance, you will become ADDICTED to this great series, and warning you will cry a LOT in Season 2!)

With all this dance on TV I still watch the old stalwart of So You Think You Can Dance, though not as obsessively as in other summers. My favorite guy is Tucker Knox (can't figure out why the judges don't like him more, but they also didn't like Danny Tidwell, one of my all-time faves, so...). Tucker Knox, SYTYCD

My fave girl is Amy Yakima (a fellow Michigander, it turns out!):

Amy Yakima, SYTYCD

It's been fun watching for SYTYCD alums Allison Holker and Courtney Galliano on VH1's new show, Hit the Floor, this summer too. Here's an interesting interview with them. Sadly, we lost another dance-based scripted show this summer, as ABC Family's Bunhead's was just canceled (and I love me some Sutton Foster).

Despite that cancellation, the world of dance on TV has rarely looked brighter-- despite the upcoming Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition, of course.

The Competition-Performance Relation and Dance

When I read Matt Richtel's article, "The Competing Views on Competition," last month in The New York Times I couldn't stop thinking about what one of the chess moms I met told me while I was researching Playing to Win: "Raising kids is a big experiment and I won't know till later if I did it right."  The truth, of course, is that we may never know if we did it "right." One of the main takeaways of Richtel's article about the role of competitiveness in raising healthy children is that there is-- not surprisingly-- a lot of competing (pun intended) advice out there about kids and competition.  As evidence he mentions a meta-analysis that was forthcoming in Psychological Bulletin. 

I recently got my hands on the article, and the two responses to it, and was struck by two brief excerpts.  The first is from the main article, "The Competition-Performance Relation: A Meta-Analytic Review and Test of the Opposing Processes Model of Competition and Performance."  Don't let the long title scare you, because here is the main find: "The take home message from the present research is that at the level of individual psychological processes, competition appears to be neither entirely beneficial nor entirely detrimental to performance.  Rather, our work indicates that the competition-performance relation varies as a function of the type of achievement goals pursued."  This also means that it can vary for the same person in different situations.  It's not realistic to turn away from all forms of competition because, as some critics explain in a response, "Competition is pervasive and an important aspect of human life.  Many people every day are involved in mandatory competitions in educational and career settings whether they want to be or not."

One setting in which competition is a fact of life is the dance world, which I've written about before as competitive dance is one of the featured activities in Playing to Win.  Dancers are constantly ranked in class and in roles for productions and in formal competitions.  Those formal competitions have become even more public as of late.  Recently my DVR has been filled with shows featuring dance competitions-- some of them healthier than others.  Below are my thoughts on some of these shows.

1) Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition- While So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars started the competitive reality show craze over dance, Dance Moms started the candid reality show craze.  But the teacher featured in Dance Moms, Abby Lee Miller,obviously had to get in on the competitive reality show market too. So Lifetime came up with this (also featuring Robin Antin of Pussycat Dolls fame, who has her own family history with reality shows, and Richy Jackson, known to many for his association with Lady Gaga and Laurie Ann Gibson). This show is pretty bad-- and the viewers seem to agree as the show earns significantly worse ratings than Dance Moms. The show isn't just about the kids' dancing, it's about whose mom creates more drama and makes better TV.  In this case the competition is more about character than talent.

2) Down South Dance- This one-hour TLC special featured two rival clogging teams.  Clogging is a cross between Irish dancing and tap and involves lots of group precision and rhythm.  The show-- which seemed like a pilot for a possible series-- is in the vein of other TLC shows, setting up dramatic rivalries among big personalities in a relatively obscure activity.  Of course, this being TLC,  injuries, momma drama, and poaching were all plot lines.  In any event the competition here is definitely between teams.

3) The Big Jig- This one-hour TLC special featured five American girls competing in the 2012 Irish Dancing "Worlds."  At this point I'm guessing that each year we can expect a one-hour TLC special about the Irish Dancing World Championships given that TLC showed the 2010 competition by showing Jig (the careful viewer will notice Julia O'Rourke is featured in both), then the 2011 championships shown over the summer in Strictly Irish Dancing.  This special got quite the Toddlers & Tiaras treatment, following the exact same format (seeing the girls train at home a week before the competition, interviews with the moms and girls, seeing them at the event, setting up some other drama for the cameras, etc.).  In addition to the formula there are some child pageant-like elements included the curled wigs, the heavy make-up, and the sequined dresses that can cost thousands.  Now, based on what they showed, seems like some of the Irish dancers might drink pageant go-go juice too. How do we know? Well, they did show one girl become sick on stage (*multiple* times, which wasn't really necessary, I might add)-- and her vomit was bright pink.  Too many pixie sticks?

In any case, the competition shown here is more like what we would expect and each girl handles her own victories and losses in her own way.  I loved 10-year-old Grace who was thrilled to come in 9th, only to find out that due to a computer glitch she came in 13th. She said she was sad, but then she "Grace-ified it," and felt better. None of the featured girls won, and while tears were shed, in general they genuinely did seem focused on their own performance goals and less on the top spot.  I suppose when you train all year for 2-3 minutes of dancing you have to keep perspective.

One other show I'd like to mention that I recently LOVED is PBS' Broadway or Bust.  While dance is a small component of this high school musical theater competition, the main focus is singing.  In any case, this three-part series on the week-long competition is fascinating and fun to watch.  I especially loved that the kids genuinely seemed amazed by one another's talent.  While there was only one male and one female "Jimmy" winner, all of them seemed to gain so much for the experience itself that it felt less like a competition.  As the judges explained every day is an audition if they want to be professional performers, so they have to learn how to be friends now.  made me anxious for Smash to come back.  Along with my other new favorite dance shows, Breaking Pointe and Bunheads.  And would you believe I still haven't seen First Position?! Can't wait for the DVD to come out!

I'm guessing most of the winners' parents worry less about whether their parenting decisions were the right ones... Then again, the truth is, we all worry. And we always will. Some kids thrive in competitive situations and the trick is figuring out if your child is one and what the best competitive outlet is for him or her.

Cheering on Cheer

Today I woke up excited it was Friday-- but then I realized I wouldn't be getting a new episode of Cheer and I had to hit the snooze button to recover. Cheer, which has aired on CMT for the past six weeks, quickly became one of my favorite reality series, warming my normally analytical sociological heart.  It focuses on a group of senior all-star cheerleaders from Jersey, coached by the tough but loving Patty Ann Romero, who runs Central Jersey Allstars.  I'm usually critical of reality shows that feature young kids (for example, see my article in USA Today about how the law should better protect kids on reality television shows)-- though I watch them all, of course, especially those that feature performance elements like dance and singing.  I've gone on record saying that I think Toddlers & Tiaras should be off the air and that much of Dance Moms is contrived, and contrived in a way that hurts the young dancers.

But I studied both child beauty pageants and competitive dance, so I'm more of an insider when it comes to those activities.  While I've read a lot about "cheer," or cheerleading, I've never seen a competition or practice in person.  Obviously there are similarities to competitive dance, beauty pageants, and even Irish dancing, but all-star cheering comes with its own lingo, style, and cast of characters.  It was fun to learn that "Senior 5" did not refer to the number of seniors in a group, that most of the girls don't use wiglets but their real hair to get those bouncy girls, and that Happy Hooper is a real person (and I assume the inspiration for Sparky Polastri in Bring It On?).

Happy Hooper is just one of the "characters" I enjoyed while watching Cheer, and one of many adults who I thought was portrayed as positive role models in the series.  Hooper comes in as a pyramid expert to help the team increase their difficulty.  The girls from Jersey definitely enjoy his Southern accent while benefiting from his expertise.  Note that cheerleading is one of the best childhood activities when it comes to properly credentialing people to coach kids; of course, this is likely related to its high injury rate.  While anyone can open a cheer gym in the same way anyone can open a dance studio or gymnastics facility, only certified coaches can participate in particular organizations' competitions (the warring cheer organizations would likely make an interesting documentary subject as well, based on what I've read!).

The most positive role model is clearly the head coach of CJA, Patty Ann Romero (I noticed on their website that she is co-founder of the gym, so hopefully in a Season 2 we'd learn more about others in the gym as well). Patty Ann is tough, but loving. She sheds tears when her team wins, she sheds tears when she is proud of them even if that doesn't mean coming in first, and she sheds tears when she thinks she herself has made a mistake-- powerfully shown in episode 3 when a bullying situation comes up in the gym.  This is clearly a woman who loves both coaching young kids and winning.  Unlike others (like, oh, Abby Lee Miller), her ego doesn't seem to get in the way of her focus on raising young kids into adulthood.  Let's face it, most kids who start any competitive activity will not end up being professionals, but they can learn how to be more successful adults through participation with the aid of tough but constructive coaching.  Based on what was shown on Cheer that's the case at CJA with Patty Ann in charge.

That doesn't mean there aren't any tears on the part of the kids in the show. Indeed just as many tears were shown in practice as at competitions. I'm sure the private office coach sit downs were sometimes a bit staged (though at least most of the time these dressing downs were "in private," and not in front of the team, though my most serious critique is that preserving these sessions on camera isn't ideal for young girls), but there wasn't any pyramid foolishness.  Mama drama was kept to a minimum too, as Patty Ann blocks off the viewing room windows from inside the gym.  When the moms were shown it was almost always for positive reasons, like organizing a team fundraiser.  That doesn't mean there isn't drama between parents on the team, of course, but it does mean they behaved like reasonable adults and didn't screen obscenities at one another in front of kids or on camera.

Instead of focusing on extraneous drama Cheer allowed the natural drama of kids and competition to unfold.  It showed the winning and the losing, the hard work, and the injuries.  It also showed the development of leadership skills in these young women.

On a fun note,Cheeralso showed some amazing hair. Patty Ann's 'do is a true wonder (Jersey obviously produces women who invest a lot of time in their signature hair styles); I imagine she has a great teasing brush, set of curlers, and hairspray.  So do her girls, who know how to work a curling iron like no one's business. I personally like the curled ponies, which keeps the hair out of their faces while they tumble, though I prefer them without the huge Snooki-like pouf in front, as pictured below.

Here you see some CJA hair, and the genuine affectation the head coach and one of her charges seem to have for one another.  CJA admits they are tough and they aren't for everyone-- but there is a lot of love there.  I'm guessing CJA likely doesn't hold grudges if a family decides someplace else is more their style, as they recognize they aren't for everyone, but I could be wrong.  I'm guessing just like in other activities there are issues around student poaching, choreography theft, and age group tampering, but I'd like to think CJA doesn't engage in any of these typical behaviors.

Now, can't we get Patty Ann her own Ultimate Cheer Show instead of rewarding teachers who focus more on negativity?