Balancing homework and Hollywood -- the real life of dance parents
On a warm October afternoon in Los Angeles, dancer Taylor Hatala and her mother, Teresa, are jump-starting their busy day.
After filming a video with renowned hip-hop choreographer Will "Willdabeast" Adams and his company Immabeast the night before, and another video with frequent collaborator and fellow dancer Kyndall Harris that morning, the pair is headed to Studio City, where Taylor is scheduled to teach a class at Millennium Dance Complex that night.
"I'll feel like I need to take a break. But, then I feel like I need to dance again because I love it," 13-year-old Taylor said.
With their bags packed for an extended stay in the U.S., the Hatalas, who hail from Alberta, Canada, will then head to the airport and fly across the country to New York -- as Taylor is scheduled to teach a workshop in the Big Apple the following day.
It's a Thursday -- a school night -- but this is business as usual for the Hatalas, and it's a reality for many of the hip-hop dance industry's top young stars.
The popularity of the hip-hop dance community has increased rapidly in recent years thanks in large part to social media and the resurgence of the music video. At the forefront of the industry's worldwide boom are kids whose stage performances have left many an audience member in jaw-dropping awe. Kids like Taylor, whose profile soared after a video of her dancing to Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" went viral in 2014. No longer is it a rarity for children to be dancing beside A-list artists like Missy Elliott, Pharrell Williams and Janet Jackson, and on The Radio Disney Music Awards, Academy Awards and Super Bowl stages.
But behind every young starlet are devoted parents or guardians who work around the clock in attempt to flip their child's 15 minutes of YouTube fame into a lifelong career.
And no, they're not like the parents you see on reality shows like "Dance Moms."
Aidan "BAH boy" Prince Xiong, who is now 10, was just 8 years old when he was filmed on a smartphone at one of choreographer Tricia Miranda's classes lighting up the dance floor to Major Lazer's "Jet Blue Jet," which to date has over 11 million views. The acronym "BAH" for "Beautiful, Awesome and Happy" -- a nickname Aidan's mom, Sheng Xiong, called her son when she would watch him dance -- seems apropos when you see him perform.
"Our life turned upside down overnight," Sheng Xiong said. "We weren't prepared. We had no clue what to expect. It was pure chaos."
At just 14 years old, Kaycee Rice has already become a hip-hop dance heavyweight. Her big break came at the age of 10 when she performed a piece of choreography by Miranda that quickly went viral after her video was tweeted by pop megastar Katy Perry.
The lives of Aidan, Kaycee and Taylor -- plus those of their respective families -- were completely altered once their performances exploded in the social media sphere, prompting a huge role-of-dice commitment. And as you might have guessed, there is no guided path for success in this game -- it's all essentially trial by error for the somewhat new industry.
"We just started getting our feet wet," said Brad Rice, Kaycee's dad. "There was a lot of good, and some negative that came out of it. It was getting through that gray area and learning about things. We just wanted to protect her."
It's no secret that the dance industry is extremely cutthroat -- only so many performers can go on tour with Beyoncé after all. Television shows like the Lifetime Network's "Dance Moms" have attempted to depict the industry's competitive nature. Ultimately, the show has created a limited image of what it means to be a stage parent. It's a portrait that many agree isn't exactly accurate either. The Rices, who appeared on the show in recent years, described the experience as a negative one, adding that they wouldn't do it again if given the opportunity.
"Shows like 'Dance Moms' gives parents a bad rap in the eye of people who are not involved in the industry," said Kaycee's mother, Laura Rice, who formerly owned Studio 13 in Simi Valley, California, where her daughter used to practice her performances. "You know, there's drama, but nothing like that show."
Actually, the life of a dance parent could easily be summed up in a single word: sacrifice. The levels of sacrifice among families range from the simple but time-consuming act of shuttling kids to daily classes or castings to more extreme levels like prioritizing your child's career over your own and quitting your job. Prince Xiong, Aidan's dad, quit his job as a telecommunications engineer to manage his son's career. He now spends his days managing Aidan's YouTube videos and social media accounts and driving his son to both gigs and classes.
Taylor Hatala's mom, Teresa, who was a practicing certified public accountant for 17 years, quit her job when her daughter became one of just two kids chosen (the other being Harris) to tour with Janet Jackson on her Unbreakable World Tour. The sacrifice also extends to other members of the family. When Teresa went on tour with Taylor, they left behind Taylor's dad, Chad, as well as Taylor's younger sister, Reese, who is following in her older sister's footsteps as a 10-year-old dance powerhouse in her own right.
"It's changed my whole world," said Teresa, who described herself as being the quarterback of Taylor's life. "It doesn't only affect the people who are traveling, but it affects the people at home."
If the day-to-day tasks seem daunting, grooming the next wave of dance superstars is no easy undertaking either, nor is it cheap. Since committing full-time to their children's careers, the parents unanimously said that between travel, hotels, classes and studio time, a family could expect to spend anywhere between $30,000 and $36,000 per year on dance-related expenses.
Laura said that private lessons for Kaycee could run as high as $200 per hour, and commissioning a piece of choreography for a competition or project could run a bill ranging from $500 to $1,500.
"We've tried not to put a cost to it," Sheng Xiong said jokingly.
While some jobs do pay the kids, Brad Rice says the dance industry is not a lucrative business, not yet anyway.
"Dance hasn't come quite as far as other fields of entertainment," he said. "In dance, you do a lot of work for very little pay. When someone sees a kid getting all of this exposure, they immediately equate that to stardom, and stardom which creates all this income. But it really isn't that for the dance industry."
When you're spending your weekdays dancing in commercials with Serena Williams and your weekends performing at the Super Bowl behind living legends like Elliott, it's not exactly easy to maintain a sense of ordinary childhood normalcy, but the parents give it their best shot.
When Aidan is at school, the BAH boy signature performance Mohawk comes down, and he might play a pickup game of basketball with his friends after class. Taylor enjoys simply watching from the sidelines as her classmates compete in sports -- likely an attempt to be out of the spotlight. And Kaycee, who switched to online schooling a little over two years ago, doubles her dance classes as "playdates, she is constantly with people" her mother, Laura, added. "[So], I don't think online school really [inhibits] her socially, as she has her playdate friends."
But Hollywood doesn't wait for the school week to end, and both Aidan and Taylor have missed what could be deemed significant time from the classroom.
The Hatalas travel to the U.S. from Canada fairly often, causing Taylor to ultimately miss weeks of school at a time. Aidan has missed a considerable number of days as well. All of the parents said that it's all about communication and coordination with their children's teachers, and feel as though they've successfully balanced both work and school for their kids.
The parents are also tasked with bringing balance to their children's social lives.
"She missed out a lot on birthday parties and sleepovers because she was training so late at night, or had to be somewhere early in the morning," said Teresa Hatala, who added that making up for lost time with friends is something she constantly tries to encourage Taylor to do whenever they are home.
All three sets of parents said that they have been criticized by people who disagree with different aspects of their children's pursuit of a professional career at such a young age. Teresa said much of the passed judgment revolves around the language of hip-hop lyrics, and the type of choreography the kids are performing, which is often described by critics as lewd and inappropriate for kids.
While the parents understand the concern and acknowledge the potentially mature subject matter their kids can be dancing to in any given class, at the end of the day for them, it's just dance -- the underlying meaning associated with the lyrics is subjective.
"When dancers dance, especially at a young age, they're not thinking the way adults are seeing it," Laura Rice said. "Sometimes their bodies move in certain ways. You can't teach children to dance that way, they just dance."
"We know how we parent our kids so we have no problem feeling like we are squared away," said Teresa Hatala, who said someone went as far as to write to their local paper in Alberta denouncing Taylor's dancing to the song "Anaconda." "We're dancing in the hip-hop world; there are hardly any clean songs out there."
But, the best advice is to "just ignore it," according to Kaycee. "Because there's always going to be haters no matter who you are or what you do."
Between filtering social media trolls and constant conversation with their children to ensure they don't burn out altogether, parents advise that becoming a power player in this industry is not for the faint of heart -- for the parent or child.
"Parents think that it's easy because they see successful kids shooting up to the top," Laura said. "What they don't realize is how many hours, the time, the dedication, the expense and everything else. Not all kids want to do this, and not all kids can handle it either. You need to have a lot of thick skin as a parent and as a child."
However, for most of the child performers and their families, dance is just a starting point. All three kids are interested in pursuing other aspects of the entertainment industry such as acting, singing or modeling. If you ask any of the parents, as long as their child continues to enjoy being on stage and under the bright lights, their dedication to reaching the top won't stop.
"When people say 'you have to be all in,'" Teresa said, "we are all in."
Sean Hurd is a Digital Media Associate for ESPN. Follow him @seanahurd