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Dance Moms: The Inhuman Price of Perfect Form

Abby Lee Miller trained the dancer in Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ clip, but reveals deep depravity in reality show Dance Moms. Eleanor Robertson wrestles with a complex monster. //

Think about the worst person you’ve ever met. Not someone who inexplicably annoys you, or somebody you hate for a petty historical reason. I mean the worst person. The kind of person you spend a few minutes around and think, shouldn’t you be in prison for something? What crucial shred of divinity have you rejected to become this way?

Abby Lee Miller, the owner of the dance academy featured in Dance Moms, is this kind of person. Miller is tasked with turning a small group of tween girls into superstars. Through a regular regime of belittlement, aggression and manipulation, she tries to mould the girls into world class dancers. With some success – the dancer in Sia’s award winning ‘Chandelier’ video is a product of her methods. Part Gordon Ramsay, part R. Lee Emery from Full Metal Jacket, if Dance Moms weren’t such a smash she could make some serious coin in the military as an interrogator.

The difference between Miller and Ramsay is that Ramsay’s targets are adults who have put their hands up to be berated for entertainment purposes. Whatever you think of the possibility of free choice, Miller’s girls have almost none. Lacking the power of adulthood, surrounded by mothers who regularly compete with Miller in the sociopathy stakes, they cannot be said to have exercised the baseline level of uncoerced decision-making necessary to justify their participation in such a demeaning circus.

It’s hard to hold the fact of Miller’s existence in your mind on one hand, and at the same time continue to believe it’d be a bad idea to kill off humanity and let evolution have a do-over. No matter the mushroom-based ooze, or tripedal fish nightmare that took over the planet after we humans were abolished, it would still be better than Abby Lee Miller.

I’ve had night terrors that were nicer than Abby Lee Miller. I’ve suffered through medical complications relating to the integrity and operation of my internal organs that made me feel better than watching Abby Lee Miller terrorise a group of tween girls on Dance Moms.

This would be defamatory if Abby Lee Miller’s entire career and reputation weren’t premised on her being the kind of interdimensionally notable scumbag I’m describing. In fact, talking about her in these terms is probably increasing her brand cachet.

Dance Moms is a bit like if you took pre-school pageant show Toddlers and Tiaras and added a rampaging crocodile possessed by a furious lust for the feeling of bones cracking between its powerful jaws. That’s Abby Lee Miller.

Don’t get me wrong, Toddlers and Tiaras is full-on train crash. Horrifying, but you can’t look away. Because of Miller, Dance Moms transcends this and becomes an instrument of self-torture. You can look away, and you frequently do. You must look away, or else risk your soul turning into a piece of stone – Miller is an emotional Gorgon.

The average human psychological apparatus cannot behold her without suffering a fracture of the beliefs that keep it stable: ‘there is good within everyone’, for instance, or ‘murder is wrong’. Miller’s performances on Dance Moms are like staring into the void, which stares back twice as hard – and then tells you that if you don’t improve your pirouettes, your life is a pointless waste of oxygen.

Have a quick look at this one minute trailer for Season 3 of the show:

In the time it takes me to roll over and put my glasses on in the morning, Miller dehumanises and devalues one child (“You’re done. There’s always another dancer to replace you”), tells another that if she cries she’s “finished”, and gets up in another’s face to demand “no mistakes”.

Of course this is edited – heavily. Having watched a few episodes, I can say with some certainty that the editing on display in this promo makes Miller appear far less reprehensible than she actually is. It’s hard to tell if Miller genuinely waters her spirit with the tears of innocent children, or whether she’s simply such a megalomaniac that it is reasonable to her to crush the self-esteem of people younger, smaller and less powerful than she in order to win trophies at dance competitions with her name on them.

In circumstances like these, there’s a delicate moral calculation to be made between supporting economies based on this sort of obvious maltreatment, and the importance of understanding how awful the world truly is. It’s like, ok, what if watching Dance Moms is actually wrong? What if the way I’m participating in this entertainment, gaining some kind of personal satisfaction – no matter how unenjoyable – from watching a grown woman do this to a child, is fundamentally perverse?

But then, if you don’t watch Dance Moms, how will you know what your enemies are? How will you ever be able to comprehend the sickening moral depths your fellow humans can plumb? How can we formulate a coherent idea of the unacceptable if we’re not brave enough to look it in the face? By what yardstick will we measure the daily cruelties evident around us without Abby Lee Miller’s occupation of the position of Worst Person Alive? It all gets a bit speculative, a bit philosophical, without these human bedbugs around to remind us how awful things can actually get.

To which the obvious rejoinder is: this stuff already happens, this level of obviously ungodly conduct, all around us, all the time. We need not manufacture it for profit. Watch archival documentary footage from any of the human conflicts that have happened since the advent of film. Watch a Republican Party presidential primary debate. Read a book by a Pick-Up Artist. Rubberneck at a group of financiers trying to compare the relative attractiveness of each others’ wives. It’s already there.

For me, Dance Moms really brings home the eternal Problem of Evil: how can a loving God bear to supply the conditions of actuality to a world where Miller is allowed to exist? Only by embracing the idea that Hell is real, and Abby Lee Miller will go there, was I able to finish each episode.

I bonded with my housemate over how atrociously she behaved; I wept with him when she called a 12-year-old girl “human trash” for making a few unnoticeable errors during a competitive recital. I truly appreciated – in a moment where Miller played such a sick mind game with another child that the girl in question entered a hysterical fugue – the ability of bonds of love to bring out the best in myself and other people in the face of true evil.

Because watching Miller’s dancers endure her treatment is the real pleasure in watching Dance Moms. They continue to try their best in circumstances that would exonerate a wartime deserter. At the age of 10, 11, 12, the girls are an incontrovertible demonstration of the resilience of human spirit. Their dancing is technically astounding, and their ability to roll with Miller’s punches borders on superhuman.

Maybe I’m a wuss, but if I were on the receiving end of Miller’s brutality there’s no way I’d be better motivated to manifest her vision – I, and probably most people, would be curled up in a corner somewhere, shaking uncontrollably.

Setting aside the morality of Dance Moms‘ continued existence, it is here that I find a ray of light in the dark. If these girls can find the internal resources to keep on trucking, anything is possible. They’re incredible.

Sometimes when I’m too lazy to wash my clothes I spray the underarms of my shirts with dry shampoo, and since I watched Dance Moms that makes me feel no small amount of shame. Simply because the amount of willpower I’m failing to exercise is approximately ten percent of what it must require of Miller’s troupe to get out of bed in the mornings.

This is how we have to assess Abby Lee Miller, and Dance Moms: not as a phenomenon of television, but as a direct challenge to the idea of goodness. A call to arms. Discussing the exploitative nature of much of reality television is missing the point. The gleaming, obsidianite facade of the corrupted human heart has existed around us somewhere, always. We must look these dead souls in the eye; we must purposely structure our lives to oppose and frustrate their measures of value.

Abby Lee Miller is Satanic, and she needs to get behind me.

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