On this week’s episode of Dance Moms, the moms get botox, have a naughty birthday party and fight over costumes—all equally uncomfortable to watch. But most of this episode was a little more serious. Dance mom Christi’s grandmother falls ill, and she must decide between going to her bedside and boarding the plane to Showstoppers. She chooses the dance competition, which made us question her judgment. In past episodes, having a drink takes priority over being with her daughter, but when grandma’s on a ventilator, she prefers the backstage drama.
And the biggest news: Abby Lee Dance Company is going to Nationals! We’re not exactly surprised, but we were a little bit nervous about how the emotional Where Have All the Children Gone? number would come across to the judges. While the kids weren’t totally aware of what the piece was about (even we were sometimes confused—was it bullying or the children on milk cartons?) they had the acting abilities to really pull it off.
But not all controversial themes—be it death, illness, war, history or religion—will earn your studio the top score. In fact, it’s easier to make an emotional number tacky and offensive than it is to make it poignant and stirring. Here are DT’s tips for nailing any serious theme:
Plan Ahead and Communicate. Keep parents in the loop. Explain what you’d like to achieve in a particular number, and if multiple parents complain, consider reworking it or toning it down. Abby Lee’s announcement, “I don’t want any opinions,” was probably not the best approach. However, at the end of the day, decisions about routines are left up to teachers and choreographers, not parents. Of course, if students or parents balk because of religious or political beliefs, respect that and give students the freedom to opt out of the number.
Tread Lightly. Make sure that the choreography communicates the theme clearly, but never be ham-handed in delivering your message. Remember that in a number about 9/11 or recent natural disasters, there are probably people in the audience that were directly affected by these events. Don’t put the spectators through emotional distress—this probably means steering clear of fake blood or any other over-the-top prop.
Stay Positive. Overridingly negative choreography is often troubling: give the dance a hopeful, positive tone. If your piece is about breast cancer, focus on survival, not death.
Gauge Emotional Maturity. Make sure dancers aren’t too young to convey the emotional complexities of the subject matter—addressing a topic like rape can make a judge uncomfortable. But allowing students to explore adult subject matter needn’t be off-limits—as long as they are old enough and you discuss how to express the appropriate emotions. When Chloe describes a dance about children dying as “cool” but says, “I don’t really understand the meaning,” it’s a problem.
Find a Balance. If pushing the envelope is really what you’re after, by all means, proceed. Just be forewarned that carefully considering audience reaction to your choreography and theme—and making sure the emphasis is on your students’ technique and artistry—can go a long way.
More to come next week, because as Abby Lee says, “This isn’t the end, it’s only the beginning. We have a long road before we get to nationals.”
And the winner of the Best Reaction to Winning First Place Award goes to little Paige, who could only think to ask, “Can we go to the mall now?”