A couple of months ago, after five long years of hard graft at the cerebral coalface – learning how to teach with a hangover (just jokes any employers reading) and use words such as ‘auto-ethnography’, ‘phenomenology’ and ‘transmediality’ with a straight face – I got my doctorate.
Since that momentous event I have mainly been getting manicures and sitting on my parents’ sofa eating crisps and watching Dance Moms. I figure that since I am now in the world’s top most educated one percentile I no longer need to prove my intellectual firepower by watching University Challenge, documentaries about D-Day and Flog It!
In case you have been living in a remote cave, or a sealed box or a luddite commune and are yet to engage with this cultural phenomenon, Dance Moms is the brilliant American docu-series about an overweight dance instructor called Abby Lee Miller and her elite competition team. But primarily, it is about the dancers’ crazy Mommas. Each week, we watch as Abby Lee – whose chins the make-up artists contour ever more expertly as the series progress – choreographs conceptually baffling routines for her pre-teens (often involving a hard-hitting ‘message’ or serving as a moralistic rumination on the state of contemporary life, such as, for example, the national award-winning ‘Last Text’, in which the eleven-year old dancers represent the dangers of texting while driving in a lyrical routine where they all die in a horrific car accident), while the mothers look on from a glass ‘observation mezzanine’, where they make underhand, bitchy comments about each-others’ children and start arguments, which occasionally escalate into physical violence.
Of course, part of the attraction of Dance Moms is that it allows me to vicariously re-live my childhood dancing dreams. Between the ages of five and eleven, I was into dance. Not out of any genuine love for the medium, nor any real desire to pursue the discipline in a professional capacity – I occasionally watched Top of the Pops and even at that tender, pre-adolescent stage I felt mostly contempt for the lythe, vapid FE performing arts college drop-outs who were reduced to fulfilling their ambitions of success in the ‘cultural industries’ via public displays of mediocrity in the form of free-styling as backing dancers for Chesney Hawkes. No. I wanted to be a dancer for vague ethereal reasons to do with Degas paintings, which I knew about because my Nan once brought me a postcard print of ‘The Rehearsal’, and the tiny plastic ballerina inside my jewellery box, who performed a ceaseless pirouette to the tune of ‘Swan Lake’.
I did go to dance classes. But my Mum was not the type of woman who was going to find fulfilment by abetting her daughter’s participation in conventional, feminine pastimes. Indeed, I can pinpoint the moment of my dancing downfall to the specific occasion of my first recital, for which my mother failed to fashion a tutu from stiff yellow tulle, as the mothers had been requested to do, resulting in my appearing on stage dressed in a purple leotard with two strips of creamy crepe paper sown hastily to the waist. At the same recital, I watched some older girls perform the bedroom scene from Grease and I quickly abandoned the fledging ethereal dance ambitions I’d been harbouring in exchange for more satisfying aspirations, on which my mother’s poor home-ec skills would have little impact – such as drinking dessert wine from the bottle, making perfect smoke rings using a fag and my mouth and sneaking out the bathroom window with strong-backed boys who might get me pregnant.
This will never happen to Maddie, whose mother has never forgotten to make her costume and who has achieved my vague dance ambitions by appearing as an alcoholic nymph in a blonde wig in that new Sia video.
Not that I hold a grudge against my mother for her terrible costume-making in the late 80s. She’s done me a favour, role-model wise. Those Dance Mom’s embody everything there is to loathe about the traditions of marriage and motherhood. They are (with the exception of Dr Holly) stupid, bitter, narrow-minded and vacuously passionate about trivial matters.
But I keep watching because I love everything about Abby Lee. I love her rasping voice and her piercing eyes and her blatant favouritism. I love her button nose and her delicate wrists and her scarlet talons. I love her honesty and her cruelty towards the mothers and, occasionally, their children. I love how she has a fat fluffy little Bichon Frise called Broadway Baby who dies and is stuffed by an expert taxidermist. I love how she is rich beyond her wildest dreams, simply because she works hard and is amazing at something she loves. Most especially I love that she’s single. That she’s achieved every thing in her life without a man, and doesn’t feel any less fabulous because of it.
If you think about it carefully, by watching series one to three back-to-back and hardly sleeping, Abby Lee is the greatest feminist icon of our time. Okay, unlike Germian Greer, she probably doesn’t get much sex – but she certainly proves that ain’t nobody got time for sex when they’re fabulous. Which is a thing us single people would do well to bear in mind, on lonely summer nights, when we’re eating crisps alone in front of our parents’ telly, trying very hard not to think about the future.