Forgive me, Dance Moms nation, but I must begin this one with a big bucket of editorializing. I just must.
Is it just me, or has this season begun to give off wafts — OK, big ol’ smoggy clouds — of having been stripped of the one thing that made all of the adult theatrics palatable (or at least survivable)? That is, the dignity of the little girls who — no matter what behavior in which their parents or the truly insufferable Abby Lee indulge — go out there and dance with preternatural grace and maturity, and treat one another with love and good will? The last two episodes especially have instilled in me a fear that their titular status has resulted in the Dance Moms cranking up the schoolyard drama and eclipsing their daughters’ hard work and exceptional talent almost to the point of non-existence.
Yes, Lifetime, this is the show we “have to see to believe.” But I’d still like to believe that it is, at least in part, to hope for and to root for the girls continuing to rise above the actions of their adult role models and jeté onward toward professional success. And I’m worried. Big worried. Especially since the fight that was never in the gracious Holly to begin with seems to have gone out of Kelly as well, necessitating the arrival of the egocentric Jill Vertes and tonight’s oh-please-let-it-be-for-just-one-episode special guest Leslie Ackerman.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For all recaps, like all episodes, must begin with the Pyramid of Doom. Which I am sorely tempted to rename the Pyramid of Nonsense. Because this episode made me cranky.
Like the thing wasn’t already a brief wade through the fires of irrelevant hell, tonight we begin with Abby hovering her mitt over the paper covering the last spot in the bottom row and then announcing, “I’m not even going to discuss this.” The unfaithful-to-dancing cheerleader Brooke, no doubt, especially since we get a close-up of her mother’s supremely annoyed face. This theory is augmented by the revelation of Second-To-Last-Gal Paige, who “doesn’t apply correction.” Which is shorthand for “your sister is a pompom-carting traitor and your mom refuses to bow to my will.” Paige seems to be getting paler by the moment and I suspect she may just stop showing up on film altogether one of these days, sparing herself unending suffering and us the agony of watching her go through it.
Next is Nia. Because she is Nia and doesn’t pull Abby’s eye “positively.” We’ll get into that more in a sec. Last on the bottom row is Kendall, whose mother — the aforementioned Jill — cannot believe that probation has now dragged on through two entire competitions and the gift of a cocktail ring. It’s making her crazy, she says. I suspect crazy moved in a long time ago.
Everybody’s favorite commentator, Big Mac (who grows more adorable with every tooth she loses) makes it into the second row, which causes her to beam like a lighthouse. Next to her in row two is big sister Maddie, whose expression is as pinched as a crab claw. This is two weeks in a row now. What’s a girl gotta do to reclaim her most-favored-nation status? We’ll get to that more later.
Top of the pyramid: Chloe. Not that Abby Lee is the least bit happy about it, but Chloe was last week’s competition victor and that’s how the damn thing’s supposed to work, pinchy-faced Maddie or no. She rewards her winning charge with an enthusiastic, “ You did … something … out there. You made your mother cry; she was bawling. Don’t make me cry.” I suspect Chloe’s already done that by besting Maddie repeatedly since the Season 1 finale video victory upset, but I guess she means not on camera.
In any case, Chloe and Maddie both get solos at this week’s Hollywood Vibe competition, which is being held in the Hollywood suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. We’ll also be doing a trio this week in addition to the group dance. But since we’ve already crossed over intro Abby Lee Dance Studio sacrilege by denying Maddie top of the pyramid two weeks in row, we’re going to march right on into heresy by replacing Paige in the previously undefeated trio — which Paige has been a part of since age 4 (she’s 10 now) — with Kendall. To see if she can “hang” with Maddie and Chloe, says Abby. Jill is blissed. Kelly’s pissed. Paige is philosophical.
The group number, says Abby, is “art on the stage.” The high concept? Bullying. A chortling Maddie reveals she’s been bullied on her bus. A bemused Holly finds it ironic that the biggest bully of them all — Abby Lee — is choreographing a piece about bullying … for about 4 seconds. Then she finds out which little dancer Abby has cast as the bully. Guess. Go on. Guess. Abby’s favorite little “ethnic dancer,” Nia.
Because Nia is the gamest kid on earth, she sticks her chin in the air and finds it awesome that she finally has a starring role in the group dance — mostly because she’s too young and too properly parented to get that the racial and stereotypical overtones are jaw-dropping. “I can’t imagine that!” opines one little off-camera dancer, but Abby says it’s all about acting. Holly does her best to invest in this notion, but eventually the sight of her daughter awkwardly attempting to give wispy Maddie a choreographed shove is more than she can take. Her school has a zero-tolerance policy against bullying and so does her family and so does she.
Nia is out as the bully.
So who’s in? Get ready for an extra helping of irony.
See, under that lone piece of paper left at the bottom of the pyramid is not a photo of the wayward Brooke after all. It’s that of a “strong dancer who can go up against our bully,” says Abby Lee. Mostly because she’s a full foot taller than our ousted bully, and her mother is the mother of all dance mothers, who has clearly studied at the knee of Abby Lee when it comes to social graces.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Payton Ackerman, a four-year ALDS veteran.
For those of you with short memories or some catching up to do, Payton is the dancer whose mother Leslie threw a finger-waving, vein-popping fit when Kendall was awarded what Leslie felt was assuredly Payton’s place on the competition dance team — and Jill what Leslie felt was assuredly her place on the Dance Moms cast list — in the season premiere.
Here’s the thing. Not only is 14-year-old Payton honest to truly a full head taller than the rest of the girls, she is also physically mature amid a roomful of gangly 10-year-olds, and in full makeup, looks like a twentysomething Miss America pageant contestant instead of the member of a grade-school dance squad. The whole thing is just … awkward. But the little girls flip their lids at the sight of their new team member and jump on her like a pack of puppies. Payton carts Maddie around like a baby doll.
Speaking of puberty, Abby Lee — sporting a massive necklace that looks like it’s made of silver thorns — sounds like she’s smack in the middle of it in the next couple asides in which she explains the bully dance. Her voice cracks and whistles, leaving me to wonder nervously if one of the silver thorns made it through her neck to a vocal cord.
Not to worry. We quickly move on to Abby, back in full voice, informing a completely silent and earnest-looking Chloe that she’s the cockiest kid she’s ever worked with. Wha’?!! Because, Abby Lee, we’ve all completely forgotten the entire last season during which you fussed and worried that the lovely little blond prodigy was going to be undone by her own self-doubt. Chloe hasn’t forgotten it. In the face of Abby’s inexplicable wrath, she begins to cry. Abby tells her she doesn’t have a brain in her head. Oh, we’ll get you off of the top of that pyramid if it’s the last — or first — thing we do, my pretty.
Random party at Kelly’s house so the girls can reunite with Brooke, who looks bored to death. The kid moved on because she wants to hang with other teenagers at football games, Kel. Don’t push it.
Back at the dance studio, the competition between Payton and Kendall Leslie and Jill has reached a fever pitch in the mother loft. Jill decides this is a battle best fought with the word “big.” “Look at that big bully in there,” she sneers, narrowing her heavily shadowed eyes and baring her teeth at Leslie. “She’s a BIG bully, not just a bully!”
“More person to watch,” sniffs Les.
Speaking of big bullies — BIG bullies — Abby Lee has decided to include Paige in the trio after all. As the person running the music. Kelly is mortified, but apparently she has become so accustomed to being mortified that it doesn’t really motivate her into action any more. While her younger daughter sits in a clenched little pile beside the laptop in the studio below, Kelly pulls out her phone and starts texting, then ponders whether Abby’s body weight would crush her leg if she attempted to stand on just one.
The next day, Leslie invites the other moms for an ostensible bonding session over coffee and noshes. Which promptly turns into the Pittsburgh Inquisition.
Why, she wants to know, if Brooke prefers cheerleading would Kelly haul her own arse out of bed to deal with Abby Lee’s supposed torture. An incredulous Kelly points out that she does have another daughter who enjoys being there with her friends. It’s fact-based, so Leslie turns to Christy with the same demand. Christy tells her that’s between Christy and Chloe, so Leslie informs her she should quit bitchin’ if she can’t explain it. Having failed to rattle either of the veteran dance moms satisfactorily (and giving the famously sheepish Melissa a pass), Leslie turns on Jill, informing her that even if Brooke comes back to the fold, ’tis Payton and Brooke who belong the team. Because Kendall is on probation and Payton shouldn’t be and Jill and Kendall are outsiders and phhhffflllllllltttt.
With perfect timing, our anti-bullying advocate Holly shows up, bringing the throw-down up short. But not for long. It’s just a dance, Leslie tells Holly of her refusal to let Nia bully for the sake of art. “It may be just a dance for you,” Holly tells Leslie in a tone of voice that I’m certain also chastens other unruly students, “but it’s part of my identity, so it goes beyond a dance.” Holly has dealt with mommies like you, lady. Hence, Leslie adopts a more global approach to the overall theme of her motive for gathering, which is essentially this: Y’all are clearly miserable, so leave the studio so my Payton and I can be stars. Because frankly, my Dance Moms, I don’t give a damn if Payton cries if there’s trophies and camera time involved.
But if you think that was something to behold, just wait till we get back from commercial break and get our first look at the group dance outfits. One by one, the girls file into the room in white blouses knotted at their rib cages, tartan miniskirts and thigh-high stockings. Fishnets for bully-rific Payton.
“This is like Prosti-tots: The Sequel,” groans a wide-eyed Christy. “I don’t care what any of those moms say,” says Abby Lee. “It’s my studio, it’s my company and they needed something cutting-edge for this routine.”
Dear Abby Lee, a mini chorus line of virtual Britney Spears clones from her 1988 “Baby One More Time” video is not cutting edge. It’s yucky. Still, with even Leslie up in arms about the outfits, Jill spies opportunity. “I want the number to be good because I have a lot at stake here,” she stammers to an eye-rolling Abby, “so whatever you think is going to make the number …”
… is worth my daughter looking like a prosti-tot. Because I, you see, have a lot at stake here. I. Me. Good one, Jill. Naked ambition takes on a whole new meaning.
One last thing — Maddie needs her hair up in two ponytails so a “Kick Me” sign can be stationed between her little shoulder blades. Make sure they’re high enough, so the sign can be read.
And so it’s competition day. Leslie knows Payton is trying but she needs to try harder. Jill knows Kendall is trying, but there’s a cool 20 bucks to be had if Kendall aces her part of the trio and relieves Jill of the stress all this probation stuff is causing her. Maddie, who has previously only been bribed with ice cream, finds this astounding, which makes me laugh.
The trio takes the stage. Kendall and Maddie plop down at the edge of the stage in a manner that Chloe — if she spaces herself equally — will take a stage-mounted microphone up her polka-dotted skirt. The moment the actual dancing begins, she returns to perfect position, but the damage has been done. A true Abby Lee dancer would sit on the microphone, permanent injury be damned. Also, Kendall dances ably, but she’s clearly no match for the animated and knife-sharp Chloe and Maddie. No sweat suit for you, Kendall. No peace for Jill.
Chloe and Maddie do equally lovely, flawless — and to my eye, nearly identical — lyrical solos, despite the good chunk of time Abby spends backstage trying to turn Chloe into a nervous wreck. Even Abby has to admit that Chloe did well.
Pre-group-dance, Leslie and Abby get into it backstage and Payton opines to the camera that Abby should not butt in where she doesn’t belong. Oh Payton. Ohhhhhh, Payton. Then Christy and Abby get into it when Christy dares to suggest the dancers’ successes are their individual accomplishments in addition to being more wins in the Abby Lee column. “She destroys you,” Abby hisses at Chloe as the girls head for the group dance stage. You don’t need me to tell you that Chloe is not whom Christy would like to destroy.
Technically, the group number (officially named “What Goes Around”) goes off without a hitch. Except for one error on Payton’s behalf — and it’s a doozer. Payton places the “Kick Me” sign in a location that Abby feels is too high on Maddie’s back, forcing the audience, she says, to focus not on the dancing, but on what the words are that appear and disappear between Maddie’s pigtails. The dance is ruined, I tell you. Well, Abby tells you. And no, I’m not kidding.
What transpires is epic, even by Dance Moms standards.
Abby freaks on Payton, Leslie blames Maddie’s hair, Payton — all teenage (and, likely, inherited) brass —declares that she thought she did better than pretty much everyone else out there. Oh, Payton. Ohhhhhh, Payton.
“Oh, that’s cocky,” says a stunned Abby Lee. Not content to leave certain death the least bit in question, Payton responds, “Well, that’s how I feel, performance-wise.” “Did you see everyone else dancing?” Abby inquires. “That’s how I felt,” says Payton, perhaps now realizing that the only one in Abby Lee’s zip code allowed to have feelings — much less make public note of them — is Abby Lee. Payton sets her mouth in a fiery red, unrepentant pout.
“We have a really nice camaraderie amongst the girls here,” Abby says evenly. “We don’t critique each other. I asked you how you felt about you.” And Payton told you, Ab. She rocks the house and the fishnets, whether you or the other girls agree or not.
Correctly, Abby opines that an apology would do little good when the other girls are clearly as talented as Payton. But I think it has more to do with what we saw way back at the beginning of the episode. The younger girls obviously look up to Payton in the way preteens are starstruck by bona fide teenagers. And the teenager collectively kicked them hard, no sign required.
The results ceremony offers little in the way of consolation. Only Maddie even places — winning the junior solo division. OK, Kelly takes some pleasure in the Paige-free trio’s failure. And Abby finds a bit of silver lining in being able to rub the group dance disappointment in Payton’s smug face.
“I don’t think you guys will have to put up with me much longer,” Leslie sneers to the other, clearly exhausted mothers. No such luck — she’s right there in the episode five preview. A weeping Payton, too. And even more shockingly, what appears to be a contrite Brooke.
Too many dancers in the Dance Moms kitchen, kids. And too many Dance Moms, too. Something — and someone’s — gotta give.
New episodes of Dance Moms air Tuesday nights at 9pm/8 CT on Lifetime.
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