Lifetime’s “Dance Moms” has long come to define itself as one of the most esoteric, passionate and wild-child offspring of American reality television. The show features the unhinged and intrinsically convoluted kingdom that dance teacher Abby Lee Miller built at her Pittsburgh dance studio. Producers painted Abby Lee as a maverick of the East Coast dance scene and ultimately a brash, unfiltered, iron-fisted ruler with no grace or tact for anything other than a weekend competition win and bedazzled, color-coordinated jewelry. Abby Lee’s teaching style could often be likened to a hardened, Machiavellian-esque approach, in which her clear favorites — those she believed had the greatest potential for economic and cultural yield for her empire — were handpicked to be stars amongst the rest of her students. Abby Lee’s manufactured and painstakingly curated child prodigies were handed the most vulnerable and beautiful routines, budding music careers, one-on-one coaching and the coveted Abby Lee-branded and approved dance team jacket.
Abby Lee Miller is a delightful enigma in her own right, and she built one of the most recognizable institutions in dance from the ground up, further cementing herself as a highly-seasoned veteran of the craft. During the show’s filming, Abby Lee was fond of declaring that her students should save their tears for the pillowcase, dangling solos as the ultimate bargaining chip and using a pyramid of the cast members’ headshots as a weekly ranking system of their performance. And viewers soon learned that the key to success at the Abby Lee Dance Company was to keep your head down, point your toes just right and keep your mother from ever contradicting Abby Lee’s administrative decisions. Abby Lee was also managing tangled legal troubles after she pled guilty in 2016 to federal charges of bankruptcy fraud and received a one-year prison sentence along with a hefty fine. In April 2018, shortly after her release from prison, Abby Lee was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, and she temporarily lost her ability to walk after a long ordeal with cancer treatment and spinal surgery. And now the last and most recent season of “Dance Moms,” outfitted with a new cast of moms, climatically yields a more self-aware Abby Lee Miller.
Adhering to its namesake, the stars and catalyzers of “Dance Moms” were the moms themselves. Often at odds with Abby Lee over solos and duets, costume assignments and Abby Lee’s spontaneous hiatuses from work or ordeals of favoritism, moms and daughters came and went. However, a core group of moms came to define themselves as the Abby Lee Dance Company’s original wunderkinds, and more deeply, irreplaceable in every regard. Melissa Gisoni, Maddie and Mackenzie Zeigler’s mother, was known for her steadfast support of her children and their opportunities. Jill Vertes, Kendall Vertes’ mother, was known for championing her “Little Kendall” at every turn (maybe rightfully so at times). Kelly Hyland, mother of Paige and Brooke Hyland, dragged Abby Lee by her hair during an altercation and left the show, though soon after, was canonized as one of “Dance Moms” most missed and audacious mothers. There was Christi Lukasiak, mother of Chloe Lukasiak, who was well-cherished for her quick wit, objectivity and shrewdness. And lastly, and most importantly, there was Dr. Holly Hatcher-Frazier, mother of Nia Frazier, most known for her integrity, loyalty, care and even-minded impeccable class.
Dr. Holly and Nia were my favorite cast members on the show, not only because as a woman of color, I had felt compelled to uplift, cherish and love the only recurring cast members of color on “Dance Moms,” but setting my own biases aside, I had long felt Dr. Holly and Nia had carried and redefined the show in every way. Nia was often the underdog, passed over for solos, pushed to the back in group dances, frequently denied the top spot on the pyramid, endured years of microaggressions, never given the right to fully and wholly exist as a dancer and yet, season after season, Nia persevered. Nia was a team player, barely privy to outbursts or dramatic declarations of leaving the Abby Lee Dance Company for good (though as a long time viewer of “Dance Moms,” I’ve forever held the belief she had every right to). Nia had poise, carried herself with decorum and propriety, was an effortless dancer and a natural role model for millions of girls of color across the country. And Nia stayed until the bitter end. Dr. Holly, an educator, was equally as charming, knowledgeable and a humble patron of fortitude. On the show, Dr. Holly was frequently unafraid to speak up against not only Abby Lee’s recent tirades against her own daughter but those against the others too. Dr. Holly often used a well-rectified vernacular, amassing a library of gracefully composed insults through which she could both serve the viewers’ favor and hold Abby Lee accountable. On one of my favorite accounts, she refers to Abby Lee as a “monstrosity of evil” after Abby Lee called Nia immature. Dr. Holly and Nia were unflinching, resolute, frequently operating on the basis of moral principle. Dr. Holly was the first to usher the girls out of the room during contentions amongst the moms and Abby Lee. She was the first (and many times the only one) to call Abby Lee Miller out on degrading behavior, even if it cost Nia opportunities or Abby Lee’s favor. Thus, it should be noted that Dr. Holly and Nia are forever remembered as the show’s ultimate protagonists of integrity and honor.
To an extent, multiple aspects of “Dance Moms” are staged, as many cast members have later revealed. The personas of all the mothers had been deliberately selected and edited for years, having been more a product of the producers’ vision rather than their own. Regardless, Dr. Holly and her daughter Nia not only redefined “Dance Moms” but American reality television as a whole, exuding an aura and temperament of grace, charm and dignity rarely seen before in any regard. Reality television was designed with the intent to portray the human condition in the grimiest of ways, drawing in morbidly interested viewers to witness the highs and lows of production-mediated conflicts, screaming matches and broken dinner plates. Dr. Holly and Nia have never allowed themselves to be held in contempt by any of the dine-and-dash stereotypes put forth by American reality television, and for that reason, they have reconstituted not only the American Idea and American popular culture, but reality television’s landscape, forever.
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