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Maddie Ziegler: Pre-Teen Drama Queen

Her explosive performance in Sia's ‘Chandelier’ video has made Maddie Ziegler one of America's biggest stars. Patrik Sandberg gets into the zone with the 11-year-old dance prodigy

Taken from the Autumn 2014 issue of Dazed: 

On May 6, 2014, Sia released the video for “Chandelier”, the debut single from her latest album 1000 Forms of Fear. A booze-soaked confessional that details the celebration, abandon, fatigue, insecurity and shame that accompanies excessive drinking and self-destructive all-night ragers, the song’s video takes place in a fleabag apartment in urban Los Angeles, ravaged by decay. Its occupant is 11-year-old Maddie Ziegler, in the role of a prepubescent Sia. Wearing a blonde fringed wig and a nude leotard, mini-Sia suspends herself in a rickety door frame, before ejecting and caterwauling for four minutes in an energetic, lyrical dance performance. Bulging her eyes, punching walls, slamming her head onto tabletops, collapsing on sofas like a possessed rag doll, and doing the splits on dusty wall-to-wall carpeting, Ziegler interprets the song’s lyrics into something that is deranged, isolated, manic and profound. 

“My mom was really shocked by it, so, it was really cool,” Ziegler LOLs down the phone from her home outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “She was like, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this! It doesn’t even look like you!’ She was really confused,” Ziegler adds with a mischievous giggle. 

During the early summer months, the young dancer’s schedule has seen her grabbing trophies up and down the eastern seaboard, a circuit she’s grown accustomed to as an ensemble and star solo performer for the Abby Lee Dance Company. An audition-only, not-for-profit dance education program based in Pittsburgh, the ALDC trains children aged nine to 16 years old in several styles and genres, and enters them into various competitions around the country. To date, Ziegler’s performances have incorporated subjects like homelessness, fatal car accidents and kidnappings. So she was more than well equipped when Sia came calling. 

“I’m so used to doing modern and contemporary dances, but not like what I did in that video,” she explains. “The choreographer’s name is Ryan Heffington. The main direction Ryan and Sia were giving me was ‘crazy eyes’, to be overdramatic, and use my fingers in a really big way. It was a big stretch for me, because I’m used to doing competition dances, or being cheesy… you know, with a lot of technique. But when I did this video they said,
‘I don’t care if your feet aren’t pointed, I don’t care if you feel weird inside, it looks amazing.’” 

Judging by the explosive reaction upon the video’s release, the general public agrees. At press time, the video had more than 55 million views on Vevo. TIME Magazine lauded it as the “best dance routine of the year”. “Dazzling!” said Billboard. “Hauntingly beautiful,” gasped the Huffington Post. While rave reviews don’t hold water in the same way as a video’s viral nature in today’s relentless stream of culture, critical praise is noteworthy in that it indicates something beyond fleeting relevance online. By evolving the solo dance trope arguably originated by Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle” and later reinvented by Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”, “Chandelier” has managed to do something rare in 2014: it embraces original pop iconography, but is rooted in lowbrow American culture as much as it is in modern dance.

“My fantasy at the beginning of this process was to marry reality television with Nordic arthouse cinema,” Sia told us earlier this year. She was referring to Dance Moms, an outrageous potboiler reality series in the States on which Ziegler appears as a regular. Revolving around the violent and jealous mothers at the Abby Lee Dance Company, the show takes the stereotype of the Svengalian stage parent to hysterical new lows, and for four seasons, Ziegler has become a lightning rod character – her undefeated record, perceived favouritism and innocent demeanour routinely catapults the other children’s mothers into fits of expletive-ridden rage. (The show is so popular that a UK version called Dance Mums is reportedly being developed.)

“When I met Sia she screamed,” Ziegler recalls. “She came up and hugged me so hard and was like, ‘I’m such a big fan of your show.’” The video was actually conceived with Ziegler in mind, and the singer originally reached out to her over social media. Although excited by the recognition, Ziegler didn’t exactly reciprocate Sia’s fandom. “I wasn’t obsessed with her, but I knew her song ‘Titanium’,” she says. Preferring the work of younger-skewing pop tarts like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, Ziegler’s tune has since completely changed. “Now
I love Sia so much,” she says. “She is one of the sweetest people you will ever meet. And she is so kind-hearted, and she doesn’t want anybody to know who she is. The first day she watched the video, she cried and was like,
‘I can’t believe this is actually happening.’”

When it comes to her dance idols, Ziegler is more specific. “All I do is watch dance videos,” she laughs. “I love Ricky Ubeda, who is a contemporary dancer, and I also love Madison Cubbage. They inspire me to work harder every day.” 

Abby Lee Miller is Ziegler’s dance teacher and the undisputed megastar of Dance Moms. Resembling a Roald Dahl villain (or a character from the filmography of Divine), Miller is big and round, red in the face and screams viciously at small children on camera. Rigorous with her training and unforgiving in her takedowns, she has become one of America’s best-loved reality stars, thanks to catch phrases like “Dingbat!”, “Grow the hell up!” and “Save your tears for the pillow!” – all bellowed at the top of her flame-broiled lungs. On one recent episode, Miller threw a bottle of water on a rival dance instructor before crying out, “I thought the witch would melt!” Last year, a mother named Kelly Hyland became so fed up with Miller’s treatment that she slapped her, scratched her face and yanked on her hair, resulting in banishment from the show and assault charges filed in court. Her defence (at least the one that aired on television) was that Abby had tried to eat her face. 

“No one stopped me for a photo before when I would go out for ice cream. Now even going to an amusement park, sometimes we'll have to bring a bodyguard” - Maddie Ziegler 

But perhaps what makes Miller’s adversaries most furious is her tendency to be right. “They never show her good moments,” Ziegler says. “There are times we’ll just sit in a corner and talk and laugh. She can be very sweet and kind-hearted. Abby’s really changed me as a dancer and as a person too. Even though she looks very mean on TV, she can be nice and she cares about her kids.”

Either way, it’s within reason to assume that at least some of Ziegler’s dramatic flair has come from watching the adults around her behave like maniacs on television. 

“We’ve been doing the show for so long, I’m used to everything,” Ziegler reasons. “Sometimes we ignore the camera, like it’s not even there. I don’t know where I get my emotions from… I guess I just have to think about the story that I’m trying to portray. For example, the story will be that my parents have left me, so I’ll have to be sad. We did one dance called ‘The Last Text’ and we were sitting in a car, and got into a crash. I was the only one who lived at the end. It was very dramatic, but those are my favourite things to do because I can really tell a story. I love it if I see someone crying because they loved the dance that much.” 

Since the release of “Chandelier”, Ziegler’s profile has risen substantially, aided by a widely viewed live performance of the video on Ellen that moved fellow guest, Drew Barrymore, to tears. “It’s weird now,” she says. “No one stopped me for a photo before when I would go out for ice cream. I was a completely normal person. Now even going to an amusement park, sometimes we’ll have to bring a bodyguard because it gets so bad.”
Still, Ziegler enjoys her small-town life in Murrysville. Though she’s home-schooled, making more time to devote to her dancing, she still lives the life of a normal kid in 2014. “I love doing hair and makeup and making ‘Video Star’ videos with my friend, Kendall,” she says. “I also love to draw. But my life is dance, dance and more dance. I wouldn’t want it any other way.” 

Naturally, Ziegler sees herself venturing into acting next. “I’ve been auditioning for movies, cool commercials and TV shows,” she admits. “I’d love to do something where I can act and dance at the same time, like on Broadway or in movies. I just want to continue to pursue dancing. I want to focus on making it out there and showing everybody my heart and soul through dance…  and do it until I can’t walk anymore.”