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Parallels Between Speech & Debate and Dance Moms

By Ben Fogler

A few weeks ago, I began watching Dance Moms. The hit reality show documents the hectic, insane, drama-filled lives of several young dancers and their mothers at the Abby Lee Dance Company, which is run by the experienced but incredibly demanding instructor, Abby Lee Miller. I’m only on season two, but call me Warren Buffet, because I am invested. I think part of the reason I’m so fascinated by the show is because in many ways it reflects a major part of my own life. Now, you guys might not know this because I don’t talk about it all that much (this is my fifth article about it), but I do Speech & Debate. And let me tell you, these two activities are eerily similar. 

On Dance Moms, the ALDC goes to competitions every week, and every competition has an incredibly dumb name. Let’s say that one of these is made up: “Star Power,” “Starbound,” “Rising Star.” Can you guess which one is fake? 

Answer: They’re all real. 

If the name doesn’t have something to do with stars, it’s about dreams, or fearlessness, or talent. Sometimes I wonder if Abby Lee Miller hears herself when she says things like “This week we will be traveling to New Jersey to compete at Fierce Dream Combustion. You girls need to remember that my reputation is on the line here. You represent my entire career, and the dancers at Fierce Dream Combustion are no joke.” 

Speech and Debate has a similar issue with naming our tournaments, except ours are usually winter-themed. We have “The Holly Festival,” the “Winter Festival,” and… “March Merryness.” First of all, “Merryness” should be spelled “Merriness,” (speech ≠ literacy I guess) and secondly, why is it called that if it is IN MARCH?

Of course, not all of the tournaments are wintery. The one I’m going to this weekend, for example, is the “Mardi Gras Speech Carnivale.” Most of us just refer to it as “Mardi Gras” though, which raises a lot of questions when it’s brought up around those who aren’t familiar with Speech. Here’s another crossover: You know how on Dance Moms, they give the girls insane pieces to perform? At the beginning of any episode, Abby’ll be like “Girls, get in here! We are doing a group number entitled ‘Daddy’s Money.’ It is a beauuutiful contemporary piece about failing to pay legal child support obligations. Mackenzie, you will have a special part. I want you to show some more maturity, because this cute six-year-old thing you have going on isn’t gonna last forever. You will be playing the deadbeat father. Maddie, you have a solo this week entitled ‘Pink Suit.’ You will be portraying Jackie Kennedy during JFK’s assassination.” 

That kind of thing is what you see on the regular doing Speech. Granted, it’s a little bit more appropriate considering our ages aren’t in the single digits, but it’s still quite alarming. We wake up at 6:00 am, arrive at the tournament at 8:00, run our pieces, then go to round one at 9:15. Some people are still-half asleep, but best believe they’re wide awake by the end of the first piece. A typical Dramatic Interpretation may draw from horrific historical events, trauma, personal losses, murder, violence, racism, sexism, sheltered Christian teens with puppets (that’s basically what mine is about), etc. Everyone has to write a little intro for their piece, which they’ll insert after performing for about a minute. Most intros go something like this: 

“On September 11, 2001, America experienced a tragedy that sent shockwaves through the nation. But on that same day, a young woman grieved for an entirely different reason. While others were crowded around television sets, Jenny Bingus prepared to take her mother off of life support. Then, suddenly, Jenny falls asleep, and she begins to see her mother’s experiences as if they were her own. As the truth unfolds, Jenny realizes who her mother really is, and she uncovers the dark secret of her family: that her aunt didn’t really jump off that balcony in the Summer of ‘78. She was pushed. Jenny recounts the terror that she felt in an autobiographical play, ‘Goodbye Mama,’ by Jenny Bingus.” 

Just to reiterate, this is at 9 in the morning. And what’s even worse is that when you boil it down, most speech pieces are basically the same. Just like A24 horror movies, Dateline documentaries, and, as a matter of fact, every dance on Dance Moms, we’re all doing pretty much the same moves, in the same order, with the same techniques. 

On Dance Moms they make a big deal of having to do new numbers every week, but it can’t be THAT difficult since they just do the same dance to different music. Maddie will always do a little leap into a fall on her knee and then end the dance by dropping to the floor and looking at the judges with anguish. Brooke always does the chin stand and then grins unnervingly at the audience. And in speech, there are many moves that get repeated over and over again. For example, when transitioning between scenes, it’s customary to either dramatically exhale on a crescendo, or aggressively spit like you’re doing an impression of a deflating balloon or someone’s butt when they’re preparing for a colonoscopy. And about 75% of pieces have a moment where the main character receives some bad news, and every time they have the same reaction:

  1. A long, intense pause

  2. Facial expression either contorts into denial and anger or becomes distant and numb

  3. Utter the words, “A-and I’m…I’m lookin’ at her…” and point.

This applies for literally any piece of bad information that the main character receives. The doctor says they weren’t able to save him? Guess what, you’re…you’re lookin’ at her. Your lover ghosted you? Well, best believe you’re…you’re lookin’ at her. And don’t even get me started on finding out about a murder. You already know you’re…you’re lookin’ at her. 

It’s quite possible that all the parallels between Speech and Dance Moms extends to any kind of competitive performance activity. But even so, I couldn’t help but feel an instant connection to the show and its characters. I see myself in Chloe and Nia (we both can death drop!), I definitely know a few Kendalls and Jills, and I think I speak for everyone who does Speech when I say that, just like Mackenzie, “I love dancing (speech),” but that sometimes, “all I wanna do is just stay home and eat chips.” Amen!


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