Another Summer of Dance on TV (the Fall, too!)

For most of my life summer has been associated with dance-- from dance competitions when I was younger, to So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) on TV beginning in my mid-20s, and on this blog. This past summer it felt to me like dance was everywhere on TV, not unlike the summer of 2014 when there were also six dance shows on my DVR.

  1. SYTYCD- Just like in 2014, the winner (Lex Ishimoto) was pretty much a foregone conclusion from his first audition, but this was a really lovely season to watch. Several of the girls were great and the group numbers (especially with the All Stars) were very strong. This middle-aged lady, oddly, became all shippy about the relationship between Taylor and Lex as well...
  2. World of Dance- A new addition to dance shows this year and I doubt it will come back. The convoluted structure resulted in an unsatisfactory result (I thought). There were many SYTYCD crossovers, from dancers to competitors, but there was a link between Taylor (pictured above) and my favorite, Eva Igo. Both attend the same dance studio- Larkin! Must be something in that Minnesota water.
  3. Dance Moms- Notice that none of these top dancers have ever been on any iteration of Dance Moms. I've written before that I feel obligated to watch this show, but honestly the formula and the yelling had gotten so bad that I started fast forwarding a lot of it. Not true this season (Season *7*, how is that even possible?!). With Abby Lee Miller's legal troubles the whole format and show have been transformed, and for the better. The new teachers/choreographers make things interesting and t's fascinating to see these dancers take on new styles. And it must be said that I have loved Laurie Ann Gibson since Making the Band 3, so I love seeing some boom kack on my screen again.
  4. Bring It- Remember what I said about Dance Moms getting so formulaic I fast forwarded a lot? Well, I can now say that's how I feel about this other dance series on Lifetime. Which is a shame, because it had been more interesting in the past. (Wish Hit the Floor came back this summer, but I can hope soon!)
  5. So Sharp- This was basically my favorite show of the summer. The "girls" are older (all of them are in college, dancing as a Lousiville Ladybird). The coach, Todd Sharp, is clearly a fascinating character. The built-in dramatic arc of a national championship (the only competition we saw thankfully) and college worked well, and seeing so much practice put the attention on dancing and relationships. This show regularly made me laugh out loud (like, after seeing him do a very girly dance routine, Todd declares that anyone who sees him dancing should, "Consider yourself blessed."). He takes himself seriously, but with a wink and a nod. of course there is also some other dance show crossover, as there must be. Jill Vertes, mother to mom Kendall on Dance Moms, is also mom to Ryleigh on So Sharp (another older daughter also danced for Louisville). I wonder if we will see Kendall on this team in a few years? It would be good sign for her to go to college considering all the homeschooling the Dance Moms girls do now...
  6. Making the Team: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders- I'm late to this bandwagon, but I am all in now. I watched Season 11 on my iPad and was fascinated for so many reasons (more on that another time). This current season has quickly become one of my must-watch shows. The whole cult of the Cowboys, and this team, is compelling to watch. With some many contestants it's hard to keep track of everyone (but I do get bummed when a multi-season competitor gets cut), and I now sense there is *so much* behind the scenes drama that I kind of desperately want more of (examples: Holly P. leaving the team [the redhead pictured below] and an audition favorite who was spotlighted, who danced for Louisiana and had dark hair that "needed a makeover", just not at training camp and no mention of her ever again). The multi-generational ties is also really interesting as well...* I wonder what dance shows the summer of 2018 will bring!*

Called to Watch The Sisterhood

When I was in first grade I went home and told my mother that the principal of my school, Sr. Loretelle, was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I also said she smelled good (I actually remember this and I still would argue she smelled good! I looked her up online to confirm how to spell her name, and sadly discovered she passed away in 2006). One of the best teachers I ever had was in third grade, Sr. Berenice, also at St. Fabian in Farmington Hills, MI. This is to say I have always had a thing for nuns. So when Lifetime-- yes the same network that also brings you Dance Moms-- started advertising The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns, I knew I was in.

Sisterhood and Sr. Beth Ann

This show drew me in like few others, and I think this is partly because the show seemed real (in most respects, not all of course) and opened a window into an area of life many don't know or understand. Having attended Catholic school for 12 years (as I write about here), I already knew about agape love, vows, sacraments, etc. But watching this show as a mother in my 30s I understood in a way I hadn't before that becoming a nun is like becoming a wife and mother. Just as you don't expect a wedding at 21 to work out terribly well, neither will joining a convent end well. Women need time to "date" the Church and a community, be engaged, and plan a wedding. These things rightly should take years and not six weeks.

So that's the first way in which the show isn't the most real. Discernment isn't six weeks long, that was for a reality show.

The other way in which I felt the show was contrived was with the appearance of Eseni Ellington. I joked on Twitter that OF COURSE I find a pageant connection, even here. While it was never mentioned on the show, she has competed in Miss New York USA several times. I wonder if joining a convent ever came up in her judges' interview?! I don't want to question anyone's true intentions, especially with a matter like this, but with her red acrylic nails (that miraculously-- pun intended-- stayed for SIX weeks), boyfriend drama (more on that in a second), and penchant for stirring the pot I think Eseni and/or the producers had their own agenda. Turns out that the boyfriend, Darnell Robinson has over 134,000 followers on Twitter, and has a reality TV history of his own, appearing on MTV's My Super Sweet 16 back in the day as he is the son of the president of Sugarhill Records. Reality TV worlds collide.

As for the other women, they clearly were on a very real journey. It's clear that some started out further along in the process, like Claire and Christie, and others have some journeying to do in other ways. I found it interesting that some of the women's families, like Stacey, have hopes that at least one of their children will lead a religious life. This seems like it might be a lot of pressure (in a way joining the family business of medicine or law isn't). In fact, Stacey posted on Twitter last night that she has decided God is calling her to be a wife and mother.

On that note, as someone who consumes a great deal of reality TV, I appreciated that the show was filmed so recently and brought to air. Filming in August and airing in November is great-- especially when you watch shows on Bravo like Real Housewives of New Jersey that air almost a year after filming. I also appreciated that all five women and many of the nuns are on Twitter and shared their thoughts (including break-out star Sr. Beth Anne).

I found Sr. Beth Anne's comment that women today have so many choices ever so true (and, pageants connection again, I say something similar). This shows that women who join really know they want to do it. They aren't running away from something (a la Sound of Music Maria). Religious women, like Sr. Beth Ann, were portrayed as multi-faceted in a way that reminded me a bit of the sisters portrayed in one of my favorite BBC shows, Call the Midwife.

If there is a season 2-- either with some of these women or with others-- I think the producers should give a bit more detail about the steps to becoming a nun. Like, beyond discernment there is postulancy, then novitiate, vows, perpetual vows (let's hope this mom who just lit Hanukkah candles got that right). The sociologist in me always finds hierarchy interesting and I'd like more beyond "it takes a long time." I would also love to see a religious order that doesn't wear the habit. As was alluded to the 60s saw turmoil in the sisterhood and I thought it was off that all three orders shown wear a habit when so many no longer do that. US nuns have always been a bit "out there" (check out an unrelated article from just this week in the Times about the Vatican's ongoing investigations into American convents).

On a final note, I'd love to get a sense of how much competition there is among religious orders in the US for new nuns. It was clear that Sr. Beth Ann's order is almost desperate for sisters, saying they have been praying for more. While they say that they sometimes refuse some women, I am guessing when a women is serious about becoming a nun she could have orders fighting over/for her?

Now I need to go learn how many religious orders for sisters there are in the US. Anyone know?! All fodder for Season 2, Lifetime! More of this, less Abby Lee, please.

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.

Lil Poopy: The Male Honey Boo Boo? (Originally posted on The Huffington Post Entertainment)

Last week a diverse collection of Boston-area star made headlines. Ben was the Oscar winner. Tom was the superstar team player. And Lil Poopy was the music prodigy. Who is Lil Poopy? Read on... Lil Poopy, aka Luie Rivera Jr., is a 9-year-old resident of Brockton, Mass. The fourth grader, who earned his stage name due to some impressive diapers when he was a baby, is now an artist with Cocaine City Records. He raps about doing drugs and having sex with women. His videos show simulated sex acts for money, and he's paid thousands to appear in nightclubs and perform. Not surprisingly, the boy's father, Luie Rivera Sr., is being investigated for child abuse by the Department of Children and Families at the request of the Brockton Police Department.

"Lil Poopy" took to his Twitter page to rage against the investigation writing, "LOOK AT SANDY HOOK Y THEY OUT HERE HURTING CHILDREN IM JUST SINGING HOOKS IANT OUT HERE HURTING CHILDREN."

Lil Poopy in action

Some may wonder why Lil Poopy's father is investigated when no child protection agency (that we know of) has investigated the mothers who appear on Lifetime's Dance Moms. Every week the show features girls around Lil Poopy's age crying because of nasty comments made by a teacher who puts them in revealing costumes and choreographs often age-inappropriate dance routines for them (one memorable one involved them portraying "topless" Vegas showgirls). Similarly, child beauty pageant moms -- especially those featured on TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras -- are frequently accused of abusing their kids. One mom, who dressed her four-year-old daughter in a Dolly Parton outfit complete with fake breasts almost lost custody of her daughter to her formerly incarcerated ex-husband as a direct result of her daughter's pageant participation, as I discussed last year at Slate, though the two parents now share custody.

The difference between these stage moms and Lil Poopy's father is that while many of the moms clearly have questionable parenting habits (which very likely could do emotional harm that will haunt their daughters later in life) they are not doing anything illegal with their kids. Meanwhile, Lil Poopy is promoting activities that are not only illegal for kids, and but also for adults. One of his lyrics, "Coke ain't a bad word," speaks for itself.


A lawyer for the Riveras has suggested that this investigation is racist. The Riveras are originally from Puerto Rico and there are obvious racial undertones when Luie Jr. is criticized for rapping, an art form traditionally associated with African Americans.

But if we're going to think in terms of social categories the sociologist in me finds it more interesting that the first time a child's out-of-school activity has led to such a public criminal investigation is when it happens to a boy. Do we care more when a male is the subject of exploitation? For example, viewers have been particularly outraged that Lil Poopy's shirt is lifted up by an older woman who grinds up against him while dancing. But this type of thing happens all the time with young female performers.

It's possible to imagine a defense of Luie Sr. that says that child actors play roles that feature illegal activity all the time, and their parents aren't accused of abuse because of it. But the key difference here is that child actors are portraying a character and not themselves. Lil Poopy may be an alter ego of Luie Jr.'s, in the same way that Beyoncé invokes Sasha Fierce, but his Twitter feed and YouTube account exist in his name. (That it's actually against the rules for a 9-year-old to have his own Twitter account goes without saying, though it's not formally illegal.) This has also been an issue for children involved in reality television, who "play" themselves and not a character. As I have written about at USA Today, kids in reality TV are largely unprotected when it comes to work conditions and finances but, again, they usually are not promoting illegal activity.

So are the Riveras doing something that will mean Lil Poopy is removed from their home? Hopefully not, but we won't know for sure until the investigation concludes. Should this situation worry us? Absolutely. Lil Poopy is just the latest example of kids growing up too fast, trying to be famous, and creating online personas through social media to create a public personality that now needs to be over the top to get attention.

If the goal was to get attention for Lil Poopy, it obviously worked, though it may come at a severe cost to his family and future. Words you may never have thought before: Perhaps Honey Boo Boo's mother, June Shannon, can give some parenting lessons...