Embracing the "reality" of reality TV

When one of my students was invited to participate in the filming of the reality TV show “Dance Moms,” I’ll admit I felt a little torn. On one hand, it was an amazing opportunity. On the other hand, the show highlights so much of the worst aspects of my business – catty moms, rivalries between studios, adults yelling and screaming at each other in front of children – I could go on. But in the end, I just couldn’t pass up a front row seat to the crazy chaos that is reality TV. Arriving at the filming, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As I stood backstage with my little six year old in pigtails, I watched her eyes light up as she saw the dancers who graced her TV screen waltz in to the wings. We stood quietly to the side as this group of young girls giggled, hugged, joked, and lounged to the side of the stage. There were dancers representing two different studios – the ALDC (the stars of the show) and BDA (their supposed nemesis). As I watched the two groups interact, it was clear that any perceived animosity was for show purposes only. The girls embraced each other like old friends, supported each other, and handed out “good lucks” and “congrats” on both sides equally. They carried themselves exactly as I would expect of any of my own dancers. They were kind, gracious, humble and sweet – until the cameras came out.

Once the crew stepped up, the boom swung overhead, and the cameras lit up, adults quickly ushered the groups in to their separate corners. A few dancers who were chatting with us were promptly pulled away and told to stick to their own group – one sweet teen even kneeled down and told my little dancer, “sorry we can’t talk to you, it’s not your fault” before she was whisked away. The girls were then given lines to repeat, scenarios to play out, and coaching to create great TV moments of drama, animosity, and discord.

In “reality” these girls are like any other dancers I’ve worked with. They work hard at what they love, they express their artistry through movement, they respect their teachers, and they lift up their fellow dancers. It is unfortunate that we, as adults, have decided that these sweet, humble girls are not worthy of air-time. Instead, a contrived version of these competition moments, featuring outlandish behavior by the adults who are supposed to guide them, are what makes it in to our living rooms.

Now we can blame the producer, or the crew, or any number of other people involved in the creation of the show for the moments of negativity that pepper each episode. However, the truth is that TV is a business like any other – they produce what sells. So perhaps we need to take a closer look at ourselves to explain why an hour long episode of Dance Moms features ten minutes of dancing and devotes the rest to drama. I for one would love to see the dance community represented as I know it to be – one of compassion, creativity, and inclusion. But I suppose that version of the show would be off the air in no time flat. In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch the dancing, and cheer for dancers both on the show and off. But as I watch the drama unfold on screen, I for one will remember the true “reality” of these dance TV stars – young girls like ours doing what they love and loving each other as they do it. Everything else is just for show.