Lifetime's Dance Moms has served reality TV drama to viewers for six years, and the show has only grown more relevant since 14-year-old cast member Maddie Ziegler became one of the most well known dance stars in the world thanks to her appearances in Sia music videos. Critics have attacked the show for dance instructor Abby Lee Miller's aggressive behavior towards her dancers, but the show has an even more insidious layer: Since it premiered in 2011, multiple stars have been allegedly targeted by stalkers and pedophiles.
"For us to say that dance isn't now a place that sexual predators are now looking to either fantasize [or] develop relationships, we would be naive," says Leslie Scott, the founder of Youth Protection Advocates in Dance, an organization that prevents sexual abuse of children in the dance community.
Last year, authorities arrested a man named Phoenix Sundown for allegedly sending one young Dance Moms star a package containing a coffee maker, an Elvis blanket, letters, and porn. The girl never received the mail because postal workers, worried the package contained a bomb, opened it. "I would never harm any children. I've never had sex with other children," he told Fox San Diego. He said he was motivated to reach out to her because "her Instagram was always sweet."
Sundown's alleged harassment of the girl began months earlier. According to her representative, he had previously posted photos of kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart online, tagging the dancer in the images with the caption "#futuregoals." After his arrest, Sundown said that he was surprised authorities apprehended him as he had previously mailed 11 packages to Maddie Ziegler without interference. He later showed off a neck tattoo of Dance Moms overlord Abby Lee Miller during a ABC 10 jailhouse interview.
The 36 year old's Facebook page also paid homage to a number of child stars. Last July, he posted a photo of Jamie Lynn Spears captioned with the words: "after Im done child molesting Ill meet you in person [sic]." He also posted about his love for Emma Watson and Disney Channel star Rowan Blanchard, but considered his views moderate because he stayed away from these young women. "They know I'm not going to come swinging through a rope and smashing through a window and screaming with print outs that we married," he said in the ABC 10 jail interview. "I'm not that crazy."
Dance Moms girls have also faced immediate physical threats from another man. Authorities arrested and tased Joe McKinstry in June after he allegedly attempted to break into Miller's dance studio and read poetry to her students. Video from the arrest shows McKinstry sitting by the side of the road, screaming and lunging at police officers.
McKinstry's Twitter account lists his profession as "Writer, Poet, Artist, Dreamer, Gentleman." His icon is a photo of a young girl dancing in an outfit typical at dance conventions. Prior to his arrest, he tweeted regularly at the young star:
This disturbing behavior has lead to heightened security around the Dance Moms cast and studio. Former dancer Chloe Lukasik told Radar, "Back in the Pittsburgh studio, there would be people coming all the time, and we actually did have a security guard. They would travel with us to competitions." Maddie Ziegler now hires her own 24-hour security team.
Even before the safety issues and sexual threats, the show has received flack for sexualizing young dancers. A controversial 2012 episode managed to offend everyone—even Fox News called the show a "playground for pedophiles." (Lifetime later removed the episode from syndication.) The uproar started when Abby Lee Miller choreographed a burlesque-themed routine, complete with authentic, nude illusion showgirl costumes. The girls wore nude-colored tops and covered their bodies with feather fans. "I'm hot! I'm mean! You can't have me! You can't afford me!" Miller screamed at the girls, before adding, "Crotch, boobs" as a dance instruction. "We are pushing it to the limit," Miller said when the kids' moms protested. "These moms need to stop questioning me. What I do works."
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Miller's attitude doesn't surprise experts who believe the sexualization of child dancers is intentional. Since she started studying the sexualization of children 25 years ago, Diane E. Levin, a professor of early childhood education at Wheelock College and author of So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, has seen an increase in skimpy costumes, full makeup, and adult performances at dance contests. She believes that marketing is to blame.
"Marketing has to get a little more extreme to capture families' attention, to capture buyers' attention, to capture girls' attention," Levin says. "What they sold last year becomes a little more old hat, so you have to come up with something more extreme to capture attention."
Child advocate Scott agrees with Levin's reasoning. "One of the primary motivating factors of sexualizing children is because it sells," she says. "It's a commodification and it's an exploitation of children by adults. When children are betrayed in these ways, there is financial gain [and] there is ego gain from people who are getting viral YouTube hits off sexualizing children in dance."
Scott recently reported a number of disturbing comments made on a Dance Moms fan page to the authorities, working with investigators to look into some of the commenters. She believes the dance world needs to adopt more common sense measures to protect children in dance, like improving social media literacy to protect kids online, as well as increasing security at competitions to stop anybody from just walking in off the street.
According to Scott, the sexualization of child dancers has lead to sexual abuse within the dance world. She says her organization receives on average three reports of sexual abuse a week from children and parents, many of whom do not want to report allegations to the police. She believes the actual level of abuse in the community is higher. "The actual reporting of sex abuse in dance is so rare, because dance is a network based community," she says. Parents fear speaking out would cause their child to lose their foothold in the dance world.
Both Scott and Levin worry that Dance Moms could influence young dancers to seek sexualized dance classes that could put them in danger. "A show like Dance Moms shows some of the most extreme images girls are seeing: real little girls, their mothers supporting them," Levin says. "It became something that really would catch little girl's attention and would lure them in. They'd think, Gee, I want to do that. It gives them images about ways to behave, ways to wiggle, ways to be popular."
Scott agrees. "I think that Dance Moms has harmed the healthy emotional, physical, and sexual development of children," she says. "I think it has unfortunately blinded parents and educators to our role to first and foremost put a child's safety at the front of everything in dance."
Dance Moms production company Collins Ave did not respond to requests for comment.