“Everyone’s replaceable!” is the line Abby Lee Miller made famous during her run on the Lifetime hit reality show Dance Moms. The series follows the journey of doting mothers and their dancer daughters on the road to stardom with the Abby Lee Dance Company/Reign Dance Productions.
The show introduced Miller as a notoriously demanding and passionate instructor and she quickly became known for her rowdy, no-nonsense attitude, unorthodox and explosive methods — which often lead to tears, yelling, heartache and quitting the dance company. Essentially, it’s a formula that made for excellent TV. And like any good “villain,” viewers absolutely loved to hate her.
But in recent years, Miller has been forced to use that combative personality to fight her way through lawsuits, prison time, cancer and being confined to a wheelchair. Here, how she is turning her struggles into hope and harnessing her tenacity to survive.
How Abby Lee Miller became a dance instructor
Long before Abby Lee Miller was producing international stars, she was honing her skills as a dance instructor as a Pennsylvania teenager.
Abby Lee, born Abigale Lee Miller in Pittsburgh in 1965, was just 14 when her mom, Maryen Lorrain Miller, had her coach one of her competition teams at the studio she owned. Lee eventually took over the studio in 1995 and renamed it Reign Dance Productions.
Influenced by her mother’s dedication to dance, Abby Lee said she quickly became interested in a “new thing forming” called dance competitions. Miller has said in the past that being onstage was never her passion, citing that as being one of the reasons why she’s an effective teacher. Some estimates say Miller has taught between 3000 and 4000 students over the years. Dance became her whole life – in fact, Miller has never been married, saying that she loved the studio more than family.
Abby Lee Miller takes on Dance Moms
Miller began appearing on the Lifetime reality show Dance Moms in 2011, and she and the girls on her team turned into almost instant celebrities.
The show was such a huge success that three spin-offs began production in quick succession: Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition ran for two seasons in 2012 and 2013; Dance Moms: Miami in 2012; and Dance Moms: Abby’s Studio Rescue in 2014 soon followed, with the latter only running for seven episodes.
Miller was also a guest judge on Dancing With the Stars and published a book in 2014, Everything I learned About Life, I learned in Dance Class. In 2015, she moved permanently to Los Angeles and opened a studio called ALDC LA.
Just two years later, Miller said she was quitting the series only to announce her return just 16 months later.
Abby Lee Miller’s controversial teaching tactics
Abby was known for pitting her students against one another, hurling verbal insults at them, and pushing them to their limits, both mentally and physically.
Paige Hyland, one of Abby’s previous students who also starred on Dance Moms, sued her 2014, stating that Miller threw a chair at her, causing her fear of being injured. The case was dismissed for a lack of sufficient evidence.
Miller was often criticized for being too tough on her young dancers with past students like Maddie Ziegler, Chloe Lukasiak and Nia Frazier have spoken out against her behavior since the show came to an end, but pop superstar Jojo Siwa, who appeared on the show for two years, has a different take: “I think she brought a light to the dance world and some people may say it was a negative light, but a light is a light,” notes Siwa to People. “You can choose how you look at it. I think I’ve always tried to see everything for the best.”
Abby Lee Miller fraud and jail time
During her 2010 bankruptcy case, the judge happened to be channel surfing and spotted Miller on an episode of Dance Moms. Suspicious of her reported income, the judge did a quick calculation to determine that her declared monthly income of $8899 couldn’t be accurate.
Abby Lee was indicted by the Department of Justice and charged with fraud in October of 2015 after her secret bank account to hide her income was found out. She was subsequently charged with 20 counts of bankruptcy fraud, faced up to five years in prison and $5 million in fines for supposedly hiding more than $750,000. She plead not guilty and was then hit with an additional charge of importing more than $120,000 in currency without reporting a penny.
In 2017 Miller was sentenced to 366 days in prison, two years of supervised release and ordered to pay fines. “A year and a day. It sounds like a movie title,” she told Good Morning America of her sentence. “We’re just going to pretend I’m shooting a movie and we’re on set and I’m there for 10 months and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Her stoic attitude hid her prison fears. “I’m afraid of being physically abused or raped,” she told People. “I have to stay busy. If I thought about it every day, I’d just sit around and cry.”
Abby was released from prison in May 2018 and transferred to a halfway house. Things were looking up…until they weren’t.
Abby Lee Miller’s fight to survive
Abby Lee was rushed into the hospital in 2018 for emergency spinal cord surgery for an unknown spinal infection. Upon admission to the hospital, Miller was completely paralyzed from the neck down.
“After I was admitted to the hospital, my blood pressure dropped to 23 over 17, my kidneys started to fail and I became paralyzed from the neck down. I have never walked on my own again,” the former reality star said in an Instagram post about her hospitalization in 2018.
Her doctor admitted that if nothing was done immediately, Miller would have died. After a touch-and-go four-hour surgery, Abby Lee emerged only to be hit again the next day with devastating news: cancer.
It was later determined by her surgeon that the mysterious spinal infection was actually a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After cancer diagnosis, she underwent 10 rounds of chemotherapy and months of rehab while using an electric chair to get around. In 2019, Miller told fans about having a second spine surgery after the initial one, and that she’ll be needing a third.
Once more in the operating room in 2019 — this time for a knee replacement. Miller admits she had ignored the knee pain for many years, but that this surgery could help her regain her ability to walk. On her Instagram, Miller revealed a 12-inch scar on her knee and advised her fans to “protect your knees with proper alignment and wear knee pads when learning floor work.”
She has since used a wheelchair to get around. In May 2019, the retired dance instructor told People her cancer was “completely gone” and that she was “more than grateful” to everyone who had helped her adjust to her new normal.
Will Abby Lee Miller do another Dance Moms reboot?
Dance Moms: Resurrection premiered in June 2019 on Lifetime. But in May 2020, Miller once again stated she will no longer be with Dance Moms in a since deleted Instagram post. “My departure was a long time coming. I don’t have a problem working with any kid. I just have a problem with being manipulated, disrespected and used by men who never took a dance lesson in their lives.”
Right now, she’s determined to walk again, Miller told Entertainment Tonight of a recent setback. In March of this year, she shattered her right tibia and fibula after her power wheelchair crashed into a wall. “I just wanna walk,” she lamented.
But through it all Miller hasn’t given up. “I have goals,” she told People. “I have dreams and I want to see them come to fruition. I want to retire and want to be able to live out my days financially secure. That’s what everyone wants.”
What Abby Lee Miller is doing today
Today, Miller teaches virtual dance classes on Zoom and launched her podcast, Leave It On The Dance Floor in June, 2023.
Whether you’re a Miller lover or hater, you have to give kudos to her strength, determination and undying dedication to dance.
Bonnie Siegler is an established international writer covering the celebrity circuit for more than 15 years. Bonnie’s resume includes two books that combine her knowledge of entertaining with celebrity health and fitness and has written travel stories which focus on sustainable living. She has contributed to magazines including Woman’s World and First for Women, Elle, InStyle, Shape, TV Guide and Viva. Bonnie served as West Coast Entertainment Director for Rive Gauche Media overseeing the planning and development of print and digital content. She has also appeared on entertainment news shows Extra and Inside Edition.