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'Dance Moms' star Miller brings the tough love

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, 8:56 p.m.
'Dance Moms' poster with Abby Lee Miller
'Dance Moms' poster with Abby Lee Miller Lifetime

If ever there were a poster child for tough love, Abby Lee Miller would be it. As the much-feared taskmaster-in-residence featured on Lifetime's reality series, “Dance Moms,” the infamous instructor quickly gained love-her-or-hate-her status when audiences were introduced to her no-holds-barred approach to cultivating a class of national title-winning dance students while employing psychological warfare against their mothers to maintain order. And make no mistake about it, there's some serious mama drama going on in these parts.

Striking a local chord, most of the filming takes place in the Pittsburgh-based Abby Lee Dance Company, with the cameras rolling during in-house practices and on the road for various competitions. Never a dull moment, the cat claws come out with little provocation as the Dance Moms fight to scratch their daughters' way to the top while routinely going head to head with Miller and her iron-clad regime.

Everyone gets a blue ribbon? Not in Abby Lee Miller's world; there are winners and there are losers. According to her, “You're only as good as your last dance.” Don't like it? Too bad, see ya, goodbye. Just don't let the door hit you on your way out.

“Dance Moms” airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on Lifetime.

Question: Your philosophy is the antithesis of the “everyone is a winner” mentality embraced in today's society. Why is that so hard for parents to contend with?

Answer: I think parents usually want their child's life to be better than the life they had. So, if my kid can't win or can't make the team, I'm going to make it happen for them. I'm going to buy it; I'm going to see what favors I can do for that coach to see what I can do for them. Hey, I don't care if the people have two kids, three kids, four kids — they all have an iPhone and an iPad. They still get it all whether they are one kid or one of five kids. It's keeping up with the Joneses. Where years ago, if you were whining to your parents about something your friends had, they'd tell you to go over there to play with it. Now, it's “Oh, really? If they have it, I want it, too.” It's not the same anymore.

Q: Looking beyond the dancing, do you feel as though you're better preparing the students for when they get out into the real world?

A: Yes. The life lessons that my students learn are used on a daily basis. I just had a girl call me last night from Tokyo. She grew up with very little means and got her first professional dance job in Tokyo. She has more money in the bank right now than probably what both of her parents have ever made. So eating in a four-star restaurant, working with professionals, getting on and off the elevator — all those things were learned in the dance studio, going on competitions. Kids learn a whole lot more than just the choreography of going through a routine.

Q: At what point is the line crossed between being a supportive parent and living vicariously through your child?

A: Well, I think every time a mother says “we” to me, I cringe. “Well, ‘we' don't like the costume, and ‘we' don't like the choreography.” Who is we? You had your chance! Everybody had their chance. So when you're 40 and your kid's dancing, it's not about what you need and you like, it's about what's best for them. So try to jump out of it and look at it afar and put it all in perspective.

Q: So, at the end of the day, is the tough love you're giving directed more at the mothers or the students or a little of both?

A: There's no love at all between me and the mothers. Don't even go there! The tough love is directed at the children because their mothers do not. Ultimately, the kid is going to be on their own ,and the best thing you can do as a parent is to raise your kid to be independent and make sure they make the right choices. Sometimes, they make the wrong choices, and they will fall down, but you give them the integrity to stand up again.

Q: After more than three decades teaching dance and dealing with high emotions, do you feel you've earned an honorary degree in psychology?

A: I have! Could I talk to any of the universities about that? You can't even know what I've dealt with on the phone, through email and text messages with moms in my studio that aren't even on the show. ... They're all crazy!

Q: When your students look back on their experience with you, what is the one thing you hope resonates?

A: That what I did for them and their experiences with me, whether they love me or hate me, mattered in their life. That it was important that they learned all those lessons. I have to believe that every time one of my students steps out onstage, or does an interview, that they hear my voice in their head. They hear me telling them something. Even if they are just saying, “What would Abby do in this situation?”

Q: When you hear that, is that the greatest compliment?

A: Yeah! No, actually, when they go to an audition and someone says, “You must be one of Abby's kids.” Just from their sheer talent alone. That's the greatest compliment.

Kate Benz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-380-8515.

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