By Becky Brindle
You've heard of soccer moms and hockey moms. Now a Lifetime reality TV show—filmed here in Pittsburgh—is putting the national spotlight on Dance Moms.
One of those Dance Moms is Leslie Ackerman, a six-year resident of Upper St. Clair. She and her daughter Payton, a freshman at Upper St. Clair High School, are featured on the show.
Leslie has been taking her daughters—14-year-old Payton and 18-year-old Taylor—to the Abby Lee Dance Company in Penn Hills for about five years. She said she makes the two-hour drive there and back because her family is very competitive and they like the competitive nature of the studio.
"Abby produces great dancers and has a great network," Leslie said. "She points the girls in the right direction."
Abby Lee Miller is the owner of the studio and main star of the Lifetime show Dance Moms. Her strict, no-nonsense and sometimes abusive approach to teaching young dancers leaves millions of fans tuning in each week.
Miller's coaching style even caught the eye of actress Katherine Heigl, who blogged, "I was horrified by the way their instructor spoke to them when she felt they weren’t up to snuff. It was demeaning, belittling and downright unkind."
"I agree 100 percent, there are times when she does cross the line," Leslie said.
That's why Leslie speaks up and defends her daughter on the show, and later makes sure to desensitize Payton in the car.
"I'm a little forward. I'm very defensive of Payton. I can turn into a mama bear," Leslie said.
That strong personality stole the spotlight in this season's first episode. She got into a screaming match with Miller when Miller did not choose Payton for the traveling competitive squad.
"Friends from 20 years ago say I haven't changed," Leslie said with a laugh.
The drama in the studio is there with or without the cameras, according to Leslie. What creates the drama?
"Abby, favoritism, jealousy," she said. "Payton does not care about the drama or what other people think. She enjoys doing choreography at Abby's and she likes to win. And Abby does win. She is a great choreographer."
As for the skimpy outfits the girls, ages 6 through 14, wear on camera and on stage—they don't bother Leslie.
"It's the same outfit you'd see a little girl wearing on the beach," she said. "A costume is a costume. I do have some concern with some of the dance moves, but as far as the costumes, as long as they're covered."
Leslie and Payton weren't seen in the second and third episodes and returned in the fourth and fifth. Leslie said they won't be in next week's show, but will be back for the episode airing on Tuesday, Feb. 21 with a "big surprise."
"The producers really liked Payton and like my personality," she said. "They tried to fit us in."
Despite some of the harsh criticism Leslie and the show have received, Leslie said she "doesn't regret it."
"You have to laugh, or you'll cry," she said. "Payton's OK with the bad comments and she loves the good ones. She's always been in Taylor's (her older sister's) shadow, so now she likes getting attention.
"We have met some amazing people behind the scenes and we'll always be able to keep those connections."
Leslie now gets recognized when she leaves her Upper St. Clair home. The manager of Houlihan's bought her lunch while she was out with a friend and six different women approached her while she shopped at The Limited at South Hills Village.
Leslie and her husband, Greg, own Luma Restaurants in Mt. Lebanon and Aspinwall. Their oldest daughter, Taylor, is pursuing a career in dancing, singing, modeling and acting in North Hollywood, California. Taylor will be in the Hilary Duff ABC Family movie based on the famous actress' book, Elixir, airing next month. Brother Connor, a junior at Upper St. Clair High School, plays hockey for the varsity team and for the amateur Pittsburgh Predators team.
Dance Moms can be watched at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on Lifetime. Past episodes are available online.