'Dance Moms' Abby Lee Miller on If Health Struggles Have Changed Her Teaching Style
Break out the tutus and the tissues — Dance Moms is returning for Season 8 on Tuesday, June 4 on Lifetime!
The reality series' controversial dance teacher and choreographer, Abby Lee Miller, has survived a host of legal and medical dramas over the last few years, but that hasn’t slowed her down one iota. In fact, if anything, battling cancer, has made her resilient.
TV Insider chatted with Miller, who currently uses a wheelchair, about the show’s new season, her health, how her ordeal has changed her, allegations that she’s too demanding on her young pupils, and whether or not she’s phased by the opinions of pro dancers at Dancing With the Stars.
After a tumultuous couple of years away, Abby Lee Miller will be back on the Lifetime series, and it sounds like it's going to be a big season.
How are you feeling?
Abby Lee Miller: I’m lucky, happy, and grateful to be alive.
In 2017, you went to prison for bankruptcy fraud. How did you handle all that?
It’s been hard. I had a good life and a good run for a while. I made some stupid mistakes and trusted the wrong people. What’s that line from the Freddie Mercury song, "We Are the Champions"? "I did my time. I’ve paid my dues?" I was in great shape. I’d lost weight. I walked around a track. I read some books. I met some wonderful people. I came out [of prison] thinking I’m going to set the world on fire.
A week later, I get a pain in my neck. I thought it was a sinus infection. I went to urgent care on April 3, 2018 and 10 days later I was in intensive care. My kidneys were failing. I was being kept alive by machines. I was paralyzed from the neck down. I heard the doctor who came in screaming at everyone saying to three friends, who were there with me, “We have 10 minutes or we’re going to lose her. Get the theater ready!”
I didn’t know that they called the operating room “the theater.” The doctor had no MRI, no CAT scan, nothing. He went in blind. I remember screaming, “My back! My back!” I said to the anesthesiologist, “Just tell me I’m going to see you when I wake up.” He said, “Miss Miller, I can’t tell you that.” The surgery to remove a slime-like infection away from my spinal cord took eight-and-a-half hours. It was so strong. That’s what caused the paralysis.
What was it exactly?
It’s called Burkitt lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that grows quickly. My oncologist, Dr. Laurence Piro, created some of the chemotherapy I had. This particular cancer is found in Africa in little boys under the age of 10 — and me.
How has your recovery been?
The cancer’s gone. I had three rounds of chemo. It was very invasive, I had it for 24 hours a day plus a spinal tap. They shot something in me that goes up against my brain cavity. When I got to rehab, I was sick and exhausted. They didn’t get to do with me what they could have because of all the back and forth with the chemo. It was three steps forward, two steps back. I’d get stronger, but not as rapidly as I should have.
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What made you keep going?
The physical therapists – I called them “kids” because I didn’t realize they were therapists. They each had their doctorates. I realized they’re not kids, they’re doctors, and they know what they’re doing! But when they first asked me to, for example, turn my head a certain way, I thought, "This is stupid." I [finally] said, "Look, I don’t let moms come in and tell me how to run my business. I’m not going to tell you how to run yours."
How long did it take for you to get there?
It took a good three months, probably. Once I relinquished all control and did what I was told then, I started to improve more quickly. I was also stronger and the chemo had stopped.
What’s your prognosis?
No more cancer from Burkitt lymphoma. It grows quickly [but] it’s cured quickly and doesn’t usually come back. I should walk again. I had two doctors in Pittsburgh tell me that I was going to walk again and I need to get my knee taken care of. I needed knee replacement surgery years ago, but then, Dance Moms started, and then, there was another season. And then, a spinoff. I kept putting it off. I’m to blame.
Blame is a strong word.
As soon as we wrap [this season], I have some traveling to do and then, I’m going to get knee replacement. I’ll start walking, and then, have breast reduction. I’ll lose weight and get on my game.
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You’ve made your reputation by being…
Yes. When you were a guest judge on Dancing With the Stars, the pro dancers did not hold back with their thoughts on your teaching style with children and how it’s too severe. Thoughts?
I don’t think 10 years ago dads sat around discussing choreography. Dance Moms, brought [dancing] to the forefront. And so did Dancing With the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, and [Jennifer Lopez’s] show World of Dance, which has a bigger budget [than Dance Moms].
I’ll hear J. Lo say things on her show and they’re the same exact thing [that I said]. That show is all about the background stories, the parents, the tragedies that people overcame. Dancing, as a whole, has come to the forefront of the world, which I’m thrilled about.
As far as how the kids are spoken to, I know a thousand teachers who are a heck of a lot tougher than I am. I don’t use profanity. I try not to swear around the kids. I think I was tougher when they weren’t on camera. Students in my studio, who are still on Broadway, called me when the show first started and asked, “What happened to you? Why are you so nice to those kids?” When the whole world was freaking out that I was yelling at these little kids, my students were asking me why was I so nice!
How has your health ordeal changed how you teach — or has it?
I’m less concerned with the “win” or the “lose” and I’m more concerned with the education and the outcome. I know now that these kids are going to be stars. The other kids [I’ve taught] are all mini-moguls. They move the economy. They sell ever product under the sun. I know there’s more out there than “step-ball-change” and a trophy. Their training will supersede it all.
At the end of tonight’s Dance Moms premiere, one of the little girls is in tears after you have strong words with her mom.
That was [over] 14 weeks ago! Do you know how many kids have cried since then!
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How is this show different from past seasons?
The producers have a lot more involvement with the children. Kids were always whisked away when I started yelling. Now, the producers go right in on the kids.
Your goal is to get these kids to become the best dancers that they can be.
Correct. The reason we were a hit in the beginning was because the kids were my students. Those mothers had history [with me]. They had dark secrets that came to the surface. These [mothers and kids now] are strangers, who’ve been put together in an environment to co-exist and compete and to be the big winner. This is a different dynamic, but I think it’s equally compelling. Also, the dancing is a whole lot better.
Dance Moms, Tuesdays, 9/8c, Lifetime