When I first saw Dance Moms in the fall of 2011, I was titillated and horrified. It was a trainwreck of camp, reality TV tropes, girlhood ambition, and, frankly, child abuse. For the uninitiated, Dance Moms follows Pittsburgh dance teacher Abbie Lee Miller as she pushes her corps of pre-teen girls to dance victory by pitting them (and their moms) against each other.
Now that I am a little older, and a teacher of 8 and 9 year olds, what was once outrageous and amusing has become impossible to watch. How lucky I was, then, to witness the funny, compassionate, and sharp Dance Nation on stage at the Wilma Theatre; the grit, obsession, and friendship that was produced to be a spectacle on television is artfully turned into an equally spectacular exploration of what it means to be ferociously pubescent.
Dance Nation bursts onto the stage like a cannon-ball, with a 42nd Street-esque opening number (complete with a vertically raised curtain). While the opening dance, complete with sailor suits and tap moves has its tongue firmly planted in cheek, it quickly becomes apparent that the stakes for these performances are high: emotionally and physically.
Clare Barron’s Pulitzer Prize finalist script, briskly moves us through competition season at Dance Teacher Pat’s (Keith Conallen) dance company. Of the company, Amina (Campbell O’Hare) is the most talented, but Pat has given Connie (Kimberlee Chatterjee) and Zuzu (Brett Asley Robinson) a chance to solo as “Gandhi” and “the Spirit of Gandhi” (respectively) in their upcoming dance competitions on their way to nationals in Tampa.
The dancers are played by actors ranging in age from 20 to 60. In her script notes, Barron writes, “…think of it as a ghost play; the actor’s older bodies are haunting these thirteen-year-old characters.” The Wilma’s cast pulls this off with clear affection. I do wonder, however, how might this story be made more resonant (and inclusive) if they pushed the boundaries with their casting (all of the actors are able-bodied and femme presenting). When a script challenges us to think courageously about who can portray what role, why not rise fully to that challenge?
Margot Bordelon’s direction pushes the actors to find the goofiness in their character’s adolescent bodies alongside the fearsome competition. At times these characters are painted with a broad brush which undermines the play’s more serious undertones. Perhaps this is the point, as our preteen years (as seen here) are rife with contradictions. One second we see children believing in the magical totems of horse figurines, the next they are grappling with their own developing sexuality. Remember me? These characters seem to say to the audience. Do you remember when you were both child and not?
This dichotomy comes to a head in the play’s most spellbinding moment when Ashlee (Suli Hollum) soliloquizes about her own beauty, brains, and ambition. What starts as an almost therapeutic release of self-confidence turns into a fearsome declaration of power. The audience, who was at first laughing at the power being projected from the stage, eventually becomes threatened. From then on, the constant menace of teenage ambition hums under the entire production.
[The Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad Street] October 22–November 10, 2019; wilmatheater.org