Inside the ‘Dance Moms’ Empire
Pittsburgh provides the backdrop for “a whole lot of crazy” on the hit reality-TV series.
Photography by Dawn Biery
Inside the lobby of Abby Lee Dance Company, Bridgett Hill, 37, paces while straining for a peek at her favorite reality-TV stars. She has just driven 16 hours from her home in Arkansas to see where Broadway intersects with suburban Pittsburgh.
So far, her stargazing has been deflected by an affable security guard who keeps her and other tourists off the set of the hit Lifetime show “Dance Moms.” It’s not looking good. Then Hill lets out a gasp as she spies five tiny girls in black and orange dancewear scampering through the lobby like elves. “Oh my God, there’s Kendall,” Hill says. “Oh, I am shaking. It’s Mackenzie.”
In saunters Abby Lee Miller, the girls’ formidable dance teacher and marketing juggernaut. Miller agrees to pose with Hill and her daughter for a photo but not before barking orders at Hill’s husband who’s holding the camera. “Come closer. Way closer,” she says. “Put the camera higher.”
Even while charming her fans, Miller has never been shy about bossing them around. She’s also not shy about hawking her line of merchandise to tourists who come from as far away as Australia to inhale the over-the-top drama that is “Dance Moms.” The show follows Miller, her young dancers and their bickering mothers to rehearsals and competitions.
The gift shop at her studio in Penn Hills sells her new dancewear line, Abby bobblehip dolls and T-shirts printed with her motto: “Everyone’s Replaceable.” She sometimes fires that pronouncement at the moms as they second-guess her under the hot glare of the cameras.
What about Miller herself? Is the growling grande dame of dance instructors replaceable, too?
“I certainly know that I am replaceable,” she says in her raspy voice. “I hope Lifetime doesn’t think that.”
Loved by some and loathed by others, Miller says she’s just getting started. Miller hopes to capitalize on the runaway success of “Dance Moms,” which averaged 2.1 million viewers in its third season and drew 2.8 million viewers for the Season 3 premiere on Jan. 1. The show has already spawned a successful spinoff: In September, the network began airing the second season of “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition,” where Miller serves as the Simon Cowell-style meanie among three judges who rate young dancers from around the country. Now, she says she’s pitching two additional reality shows.
Other brand extensions buzz around in Miller’s head like bees. A line of women’s evening wear. A costume line. On and on.
Neither Miller nor Lifetime will disclose how much she makes or discuss financial arrangements behind her business ventures. Miller, who also balks at disclosing her age, says only that she believes she can leverage her “Dance Moms” star power into a long shelf life.
“I have enough moxie, enough connections, I will be able to go on and do many things,” she says. “There are so many avenues for me to go. I could drive all night.”
When she arrived at the dance studio on a recent day, she was in such a hurry that she left her Cadillac SUV running. “I’ll park it,” a crew member says, running outside.
Miller, a devoted daughter, has just come back from visiting her mother, who at the time was gravely ill, and talking to her mother’s nurse.
Then she’s off to the grand opening of her new Bloomfield store, Broadway Baby’s Dancewear and Costume Shoppe. Unmarried and with no children, Miller named the store after her late dog, who made an embalmed appearance in a sparkly black-and-red bed during the store event. (If you watch the show, this wouldn’t even seem remotely strange.)
And then there is her upcoming book, Everything I Learned About Life, I Learned in Dance Class.
“I fought for that title,” she says of the work-in-progress to be published by HarperCollins. Its release date has not been set.
Miller has always been a fighter. How else to explain how she made her company a household name in a country with tens of thousands of dance studios?
Growing up as an only child in Penn Hills, she hung out at her mother’s dance studio, but she didn’t like to perform. She says she preferred choreography, finding the right steps, music and costumes for a number. At age 14, she asked her mother, Maryen Lorrian Miller, if she could approach some students and form the Abby Lee Dance Company. At 22, she obtained a $540,000 loan and built her current studio on Saltsburg Road. She made sure to include an observation deck for her students’ mothers in hopes that by giving them a vantage point to watch classes, she’d stop them from whining when the children didn’t get a solo.
If she inherited her mother’s love of dance, she got her abrasiveness from her late father, George. “You are dumb enough for twins,” Miller recalls her father, a railroad-yard master, telling her.
Another kid might have crumbled under such a withering attack. Not young Abby. “I rallied and proved him wrong,” she says. “When I say things to the kids, I want them to get some backbone and prove me wrong.”
She says her business was flourishing artistically but not financially when the recession of 2008 hit. That’s when she and her friend, professional dancer John Corella, had a conversation about the Fox hit series “So You Think You Can Dance,” a show featuring performers 18 and over. “They are crazy,” Miller thought. “They are missing the dance-studio experience, the dance teachers, the mom-and-dance-teacher relationship.”
Corella and Bryan Stinson, who would become executive producer of “Dance Moms,” brainstormed the concept. The original plan was to follow five different Dance Moms in five different cities, but their favorite mothers were in Pittsburgh — or as Miller put it, “They decided there was a whole lot of crazy in Pittsburgh.”
They chose the Pittsburgh mothers first and then invited Miller into an audition, according to a Lifetime spokeswoman.
The concept was later taken to a production company, which sold it to Lifetime.
In a format that rewards outsized personalities and conflict, Miller became an instant star, especially among tween and teenage girls. But there was a cost. Parents of 14 talented dancers pulled their children from her company.
“Why are you teaching these children that bad behavior reaps rewards?” they would ask her. “When you are bad and disrespectful and scream profanities in front of 10-year-olds, your kids get to be on TV and fly all over the place.”
“What Lifetime doesn’t understand is whatever they are paying me might seem like a lot, but it doesn’t replace those kids’ tuition, for not one year or three years, but for 18 years,” Miller says.
Originally, the show was supposed to focus on the mothers, whose drama Miller claims is even worse off-camera. With her signature cross-armed, don’t-mess-with-me pose, Miller stole a lot of camera time.
In person, she seems softer and smaller, with teased brown hair and makeup applied by an artist who travels with her. The camera may add 10 pounds, but the effect is clearly exaggerated when she towers over her tiny dancers.
Though she is often criticized for her tirades aimed at 10-year-olds, Miller insists she is no villain. She says her dancers respect that she is giving them the truth in a society that hands out sugarcoated compliments. “Kids get a trophy just for being born,” she says.
Pittsburgh native Rachelle Rak, a successful Broadway dancer, has a more nurturing teaching style than Miller. As a new judge on “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition,” she plays good cop to Abby’s bad one.
“Abby feels like the kids will be able to handle everything and never walk out of a room shattered,” Rak says. “There is some truth to it, but it is a tricky area when you are talking about kids. You can’t crush them when they are just starting to blossom.”
Miller’s tough style is evident in the beginning of every episode of “Dance Moms” when she unveils a pyramid that rates her young dancers. Maddie Ziegler, her star pupil, is usually on top. “People ask me why the show works. They are jealous of Maddie,” Miller says of the moms; the resulting conflict drives the show’s drama.
That assertion is downplayed by Maddie’s mother, Melissa Ziegler-Gisoni, who on a late-summer day is dressed in a chic striped sleeveless dress and sky-high stiletto platforms. “All the dancers are wonderful,” says Ziegler-Gisoni, whose younger daughter, Mackenzie, also studies with Miller and appears on “Dance Moms.”
Ziegler-Gisoni, of Murrysville, is tight with Miller, and she says she is grateful to her for all the calls dangling opportunities for her daughters — from potential movie roles to music-video gigs to modeling. The show has made such celebrities of Maddie and other girls who dance at Miller’s studio that tween girls sometimes burst into tears at the sight of them.
She and the other moms are paid for their appearances on the series, although they won’t disclose how much. While the grueling work weeks sometimes stretch into long hours, (“It’s not always fun,” she says), Ziegler-Gisoni says she is grateful for the pay, which has enabled her to start a college fund for her daughters.
The show is more of a double-edged sword for Leslie Ackerman, a newcomer to the group and a designated pot-stirrer among the moms. Another mother accused Ackerman’s daughter Payton, 16, of being a bully, and the label stuck on social media and in school. “It was terrible,” Payton says. Even so, she says she likes being on TV and getting support from fans.
Leslie Ackerman says the show’s mama drama is not scripted but is prompted by producers. Things got out of hand during the Season 3 finale in New Orleans when Christi Lukasiak, another mom on the show, threw a drink at Ackerman and knocked Ackerman’s drink out of her hand while a camera rolled. Ackerman swung back at Lukasiak and a producer who intervened. “It was ugly,” Ackerman says.
So why do the show? “We would give up anything for our kids to be in the industry,” says Ackerman, of Upper St. Clair. “Payton is going to go to LA and have a name. But I worry the fight is going to hurt her.”
For now, Ackerman is staying with her daughter at the Abby Lee Dance Company and living out the drama of a reality-TV star. For all her clashes with the other moms, she says she likes Miller’s direct style of teaching. Ackerman also admires Miller’s business savvy and says she believes it will transcend the life cycle of “Dance Moms.”
“This is just the beginning,” Ackerman says. “Abby is such a force. She is going to have an empire. Just watch.”