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So, this post is inspired/requested by Raised_by_Heathens' Dance Moms post from yesterday, but I know a lot of us have watched/are baffled by Dance Moms, so I'm here to fill in the blanks. I grew up in the competitive dance world. I started dancing at 4 and competing at 11. From age 11 until I graduated from high school, I left school everyday and went to my dance studio and spent many weekends competing, practicing, or performing. I did tap, jazz, and ballet and competed all three. Summers were an all day everyday thing. I was essentially a 3 season varsity athlete with none of the perks of being one at school. I absolutely loved it.
First, a note though- these are my experiences as they relate to my studio and the competitions that we were at. I know they relate to what you see on Dance Moms because I competed in the same circles as Abby Lee Dance Company and Candy Apples (Cathy's studio) and recently, my studio sent a dance or two to a competition featured on Dance Moms (more on that later). I don't want to give out too much doxxing information, so I won't give lots of details about my experiences with either of those studios except to say I have had personal encounters with Cathy and while I think she produces some decent dancers, she was not pleasant to the people competing against her. I also know that I have been at some of the same competitions as Abby Lee, but honesty, she and her studio never left an impression on me one way or another. What that means, is that at that competition, they didn't do so insanely well that I was blown away (as is the case with a few other studios) and that her dancers weren't so friendly that we hung out (which is not surprising, studios are usually pretty insular).
So lets start with how these damn competitions work, because I think that's one of the most confusing and deceiving things in the show for people who haven't lived it. Every competition is a bit different, but they all have the same basic set of rules and formats. I won't go into the rules in detail except to lay out how the categories work. Every dance is given a category to compete in based on the number of dancers, style of dance, and average age of dancers. The number of dancers would put you into solo, duo/trio, small group (usually no more than 7 dancers) large group, and lines (those two got really fuzzy together depending on the competition). I did more lines than anything else and usually had between 15 and 20 people on stage with me. All of the group numbers you see on Dance Moms fall into the small group category. Style of dance varied so so much that it was a big blob of what the fuck. Basically- Tap is a thing, Jazz is a thing, and there's a weird confusing mix in the blend of modern and ballet styles that was called just what ever the fuck you wanted to call it, usually lyrical. Age is the average age of dancers, BUT most competitions have a rule that the oldest dancer in the group cannot be more than 2 years older than the average. So, when we did a big production number with the entire company, little kids through high school seniors, we competed in the 15-16 category (or it's equivalent) even though the average age was probably 13 or so. Some competitions had it broken down into age divisions- 10-12, 13-14, etc and some had it just open ended- 13 and up, 12 and below.
Competitions are both competitive against other people and not. Every dance is graded by a set of judges and presented with an award. So, just pretend the scoring is set up like your normal ABC grading system and we'll go from that (really there's more variation, but for the sake of simplicity, just go with it). These grades are based on several categories, some being more important than others but generally include technique, how well the dance is performed (if you're supposed to be in unison and someone isn't, points off) choreography, and to lesser degrees, costumes and entertainment value. Judging can also be wildly all over the place. Certain competitions would bring in some legit dancers, choreographers, and studio owners to judge. Some brought in the local girl who went to perform on a cruise line, who was probably a good dancer, but in terms of judging, who knows. As a result, we'd see the same studios and the same dances all the time but there could be a lot of variation between how each dance did. Tap dances, btw, frequently got screwed over in some of the lesser quality competitions, because they're not usually flashy. Now, the way they name these grades is where you're seeing weirdness on the show. A lot of competitions have moved to a Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze ranking- if you did amazingly, Platinum, Gold for really good, etc. But, when I started, a lot of them gave out the confusing as fuck 1st, 2nd, and 3rd rankings. So, everyone who got an A, got 1st, there was no actual ranking to those.
Now, after you're graded, they rank you. The rankings are based on points given in the grading portion and are what you're seeing when a Dance Moms dance is given a 1st overall, 2nd overall, etc. BUT don't think that you're looking at overall, overall. Nope, these overall awards are given out by category, most of the time by age and size of the group. This is done, honestly, for the sake of fairness. How do you judge a solo of a 9 year old against an 18 year old or a solo against a line of 50 people? So, this is where we're seeing wonkyness in a lot of the Dance Moms competitions. My old studio recently went to a competition that appeared on the show and won 1st overall in their category. So did the Dance Moms girls. They don't show that there's a shit ass load of 1st overalls. They are also not showing that the show is manipulating the age part or finding competitions with different rules, because in my world of competition, they are too old to compete in the 8-9 category that they were in in the competition my studio went to.
The biggest question I get about this show is "are dance moms really that nuts?" and the answer is, "yeah, some of them." My studio was relatively drama free while I was there. Catty parents didn't last long, for example, I know a woman who loudly complained that her daughter wasn't given a solo but another girl was, but she also would loudly complain about how far she drove and paid for shit and didn't want her daughter dancing more than one or two nights a week. They ended up quitting competition and the mom bitches about the studio to this day. There's more to the story, but because the other daughter is my best friend privacy reasons are just allowing me to say- nothing the studio did was out of place, it all falls down on my friend's mom being catty and generally a bitch (which, ps, transcends into other parts of my friends life and mine by extension). There are some other things like that, but our studio really encouraged good sportsmanship, with each other and other studios. I have been to competitions, though where parents would sit in the audience and be horrible, loudly horrible, about the kids on stage. If they were doing that to other studios, I can't imagine they weren't doing it to each other. Dance moms (and dads, although to a MUCH lesser extent) have the potential to be the perfect shit storm of stage mom and 90s crazy soccer mom and it totally happens. I know a woman (from another studio) who pulled her kids out of school so she could homeschool and they could train for dancing more. This is a competitive studio, not Kirov, crazy lady.
The other question I've gotten is "Do real dance moms spend that much time at the studio" and the answer is again, "yeah, some of them." It was a weird thing honestly, but, the moms who hung out at the studio were not allowed to sit and watch class, like on the show, but were usually there because they were friends with the studio owner or were helping her with something. One woman was ALWAYS there from the time her daughter and I were really young, before we started competing. I found out latter that this woman was a big deal lawyer who had established herself enough that she was able to take the time in the afternoons to chill at the studio and helped out the owner with paperwork and stuff. She just liked it. Other moms would hang out a bit, but really, when you'd see them the most is right before the first competition, when they'd start bedazzling the shit out of costumes. These were mostly stay at home moms with multiple dance kids, although, I have totally seen the CFO for a not insignificant clothing company spend an evening bedazzling.
One of the big criticisms I've seen of Dance Moms is the costumes and I think the problem there is a combination of Abby Lee and TV. Most competitive studios only compete one dance per group per year, so for example, I'd learn 4 dances a year, one for tap, jazz, ballet, and our production number (which is an extended dance, I think the time cut off is 6 minutes instead of 3). My friend, who is professional now, would learn her solo, tap small group, jazz small group, ballet small group, lather rinse repeat for lines, plus the production and maybe a duo, so would do 8 or 9. So, for the sake of tv, they're doing one dance a week, which equals one costume a week. It's hard to get costumes if you're turning them around on a dime, which is why they MUST be choreographing pre filming because ordering them takes a bit of time, but you can make a costume from shit you find in thrift stores or at Old Navy (I've done both). That being said, my studio was rather conservative and came up with 200 or more appropriate costumes a year for the whole studio's recital, by their standards, which, let me tell you were stricter than what you see in a lot of costume catalogues. The costumes they're putting them in can be both sexually inappropriate and racist as fuck- that's most likely on Abby Lee. If a tv station told my teachers to sex us up a bit, my teacher would tell them to fuck off in the nicest way possible, because she doesn't swear. Many competitions had rules about appropriateness of costumes and dances, but they were usually badly defined or not enforced, because no one wants to punish a kid for the costume an adult picked out. I have seen only one dance disqualified and it was 13 year olds doing "Big Spender" in next to nothing, almost identical to a Fosse production I've seen. I'm a huge Fosse fan, but come on, there are levels of appropriateness for kids.
This has gotten long, but I have so much more information. Let me know what else you want to know and I can answer in the comments.