Dance Moms and Getting What You Wish For: The Local Inside Scoop
|by Kim Epp Frenette, February 2012|
Leslie Ackerman is a woman being watched, and she knows some people may not like what they see.
Leslie, a resident of Upper St Clair, is participating in one of the most “love to hate it, have to watch it” reality shows currently on cable television: Dance Moms.
There is nothing edifying about the show. Over-weight, serpent-tongued dance instructor Abby Lee Miller screams at overly made-up young girls in skimpy costumes while their mothers excel at the “best” of female stereotypes: bitchiness, cattiness, back-biting and an impressive lack of emotional control.
Dance Moms is so extreme I went to the interview expecting Leslie to say the show is all scripted and when the camera stops rolling everyone is kind and polite and laughs about the blow-ups. Her revelations shocked me, but by the end I had a better understanding of, and an amused respect, for this over-the-top Dance Mom.
“It’s all real feeling,” says Ackerman, a wry smile on her face. “It’s all true.”
The ‘non-reality’, apparently, comes from the show’s producers bringing those underlying emotions and strong personalities together in situations tailor-made to foment the drama. Add encouragement to “be yourself, let her know how you feel,” and you get spectacular screaming exhibits like the one in this season’s first episode. Leslie reams out Abby for placing a stranger, rather than Leslie’s daughter (a long time favorite), on the Dance Moms team.
In other words, there is some – but not much – priming of the pump. “When (the camera) is on you are encouraged not to hold back…being on camera gives everyone permission to take off that hold,” says Ackerman. But she claims her anger at the situation was genuine and she would have confronted Abby about it, camera or not. Leslie admits to not much of a filter anyway. “What you saw on Dance Moms with me, is me. The line now among my friends is ‘Leslie Ackerman is the only person we know who can be paid to be herself.’”
Ackerman feels part of the show’s attraction is that it draws on emotions any woman with a child can relate to. “They put you in situations where you have to defend your daughter, and you turn into a bear right there on TV for the world to see. You can’t help it.”
Despite appearing over the top, Ackerman claims the atmosphere at Abby Lee Dance Company was essentially the same prior to the show, for only one reason. “I am sure every studio has some drama but not everyone has Abby Lee Miller. Abbey is the key to our drama.”
According to Ackerman Miller is great at creating chaos. “Abby just gets your goat.” She can be shockingly blunt with the students and parents, on and off camera. “I would say 90% of what you see (on the show) is how she is,” says Leslie. “There are times when she does cross the line … she takes it to the hurtful side.”
Leslie knows alternatives exist. The studio at which her daughters danced when they were younger was the antithesis of the Abby Lee Dance Company. “Everything about it was fabulous,” says Ackerman. “The owner was the most positive role model for your children that you could ask for.”
So why does Ackerman submit her daughters and herself to an environment as negative as the one portrayed on Dance Moms? Again, the key is Abby Lee Miller. “She just grooms us for what we want,” says Leslie. “We knew our children had it in them that they could take it further… that they could be taken to LA or to Broadway, and we had to give them every opportunity.” (Indeed, her oldest daughter is now pursuing a dance career in LA.)
Years before Dance Moms made Abby Lee Miller a known name, it was Leslie’s husband, whom she says is even more a ‘dance mom’ than herself, who noticed Abby’s competitive drive and success at competitions. Their daughters had been pushing for more competition opportunities; Greg approached Abby at a competition and according to Leslie said, “I love you, I love your dances and I want my girls to dance with you.” Over they went, even though it meant a 2 ½ hr round trip out to Penn Hills for Leslie multiple times a week.
According to Ackerman Abby Lee Miller “absolutely knows her stuff.” “She is an amazing choreographer…she knows what the judges want.” She also pushes, hard. “She expects, and does not accept, anything but your best,” says Ackerman. “I guess her demoralization after the fact if you don’t do well – that in itself makes you do amazing…
Leslie is well aware that some people see Abby’s behavior, as shown in Dance Moms, as psychologically abusive. She agrees that Abby sometimes “puts in adjectives that don’t belong” but also says “I am not one to hold back and allow it…I will call her out on it.” When Abby gets hurtful, Leslie runs damage control. “I am desensitizing (my daughter) in the car on the way home.”
Leslie doesn’t disagree, however, with Abby’s tough style. It mirrors her own sense of parental strictness. “I’ll be the first to say ‘if you had listened to her the first time, especially the second time, you wouldn’t have got what you got.’” She points out that society doesn’t get as upset by the idea of football teams being pushed hard; “it is that this is on camera.”
Nor does Leslie apologize for Abby’s focus on winning. “My husband and I are the most competitive people you will ever meet.” Leslie contends her children feel the same. “(Being content with) 25 cent trophies is okay up until a certain age. It doesn’t feel good after that….You don’t want to be the one always walking off the stage losing.”
Leslie hopes the additional exposure her daughter will receive from being on Dance Moms will pay off. “Hopefully someone will see her on TV and aside from the drama will see that she is a great performer…that she has the look they are looking for. She has amazing abs!”
If you could choose a single reason why Leslie Ackerman is willing to be on Dance Moms, this would be it. “It is all about how far you will go for your child, what opportunities you will give them.” She denies any suggestion she is pushing her kids for her own ambition. “It is her passion. That’s why I do this. I do it for her.”
She does admit, however, that her own background impacts the degree to which she wants to give her children everything she never had, especially parents who stood up for her. Ackerman‘s father died when she was 14; her mother was out of the picture. She and her 16 and 17 year old siblings raised themselves; the authorities never found out minors were living on their own.
Through sheer determination a young Leslie moved on her own out of Wilkinsburg to Brookline. She worked in the restaurant trade and met her husband Greg. Eventually they opened restaurants in Aspinwall and Mt Lebanon, both named Luma. Six years ago they moved to USC to take advantage of the excellent schools for their three children.
Ackerman looks at her youngest daughter, now 14, and thinks “I never had any of this. I never got to dance when I was younger. I grew up really quick.”
Leslie Ackerman knows a lot of people will not approve of her participation in the show. “I’ll get judged. They’re going to say ‘Why would you put yourself in that negative situation?’” To her critics she says, “This is my life. You see it. You hear it. Oh well. Do I choose to have it? Absolutely!”
To critics of the show, who in the blogosphere can be truly vindictive, she says, “If you don’t like the show, then why are you watching it?”
In fact, she sees reality shows as giving a needed, if exaggerated, burst of honesty to society. “We all live (this negativity and chaos) once in a while. We just don’t tell it or show it. Human beings want to be perfect and think nothing is wrong. And that’s not the way life is really.”
Leslie is happy with her daughter dancing at Abby Lee Dance Company but is astute enough to realize being on Dance Moms may have unintended consequences. “It is a ‘careful what you wish for’ thing,” she says. “People say they want to be on TV but they forget what goes along with it. You can get hurt, and you can hurt peoples’ feelings sometimes.”
Is it worth it? “It is still too new for me to say. I’ll talk to you after and let you know. I’m not sure….I’m not sure.”
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