Clare Barron on ‘Dance Moms,’ Teen Girls and Black Sheep Ballerinas

Posted May 22, 2018 11:50 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — When she was 14, as a ballet student in Wenatchee, Washington, Clare Barron was unexpectedly promoted to a senior role in “The Nutcracker.” It wasn’t because of her strengths as a dancer — as she recalled in a Skype interview, laughing so hard she seemed to be verging on tears — but because a group of older students at her ballet school had suddenly quit. That left Barron’s less promising cohort, what she called “the black sheep of the studio,” to fill their shoes.

“We were truly out of our element,” she said. “I remember people in the audience suppressing laughter, because they all knew how it was supposed to go. I didn’t last much longer after that experience.”

There’s no scene quite like that in Barron’s play “Dance Nation,” which has been enjoying critical acclaim and a sold-out run at Playwrights Horizons. (It has been extended through July 1.) But in this comedy about a dance team of 13-year-olds striving to compete in nationals — and learning about themselves in the process — not all goes smoothly onstage or in the studio. Jealousy, injury and menstruation complicate their journeys of self-discovery and sexual awakening. So does the pressure imposed by their hard-to-please instructor, Dance Teacher Pat, to heal the world through dance in a lyrical number inspired by Gandhi.

It would be easy to rehash stereotypes about competitive dance as purely cutthroat and female adolescence (there’s just one boy on the team) as purely harrowing. But Barron exaggerates and undercuts those notions, revealing their gray areas. While acknowledging the stress of participating in competitive dance at a formative age, “Dance Nation” also highlights the surreal and exploratory dynamics of teen girlhood, as they play out in dressing rooms and daydreams.

And the show doesn’t gloss over the simple pleasure, often eclipsed in popular dance TV shows and movies, of dancing with your friends. As Lee Sunday Evans, the play’s director and choreographer, said in a phone interview, “It was important for us to capture the incredibly intoxicating feeling of dancing with a group of people in a joyful and earnest way.”

Though Barron was never a competition dancer, her older sister was, and she encountered others through her obsession with the reality TV show “Dance Moms.” She talked about how that show, along with her study of ballet (she quit at 15), informed her writing of “Dance Nation.” Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How does your dance background show up in the play?

A: The biggest thing for me is the friendships between the girls. I became such intimate friends with the girls I danced with, much more intimate than my friends at middle school. They were very loyal and loving. And it was also a real physical intimacy. We’d be naked together in the dressing room, so all these questions about puberty and sex that came up around that time. They were my source of wisdom about that.

Q: That definitely comes through in the locker room scenes.

A: The other thing is this feeling you have as a young student of dance that you’re doing something really important, that there’s this paragon of excellence you’re trying to hit, and if you hit it, you will reach the sublime. In the play, when they’re trying to do this dance for Gandhi that can change the world, I think there’s a similar sense of something very earnest and pure and also very rigorous and demanding.

Q: Watching the play, I was thinking about how the pressures of dance training can intensify what teenage girls are going through already, especially related to body image. Was that your experience growing up?

A: I saw two sides of that. There was really brutal stuff about your body and weight and whether or not you had a ballet body. There was this sense of people’s bodies changing in a way that hurt their dance prospects, which is just a terrible toxic mentality. To be going through puberty and feeling like, “My body is changing in a way that will not let me be a dancer or be the best dancer.”

Q: What was the other side?

A:With my friendships and the dressing room vibe, I felt I had a space that was a little bit safe. I grew up in a community that was pretty conservative and Christian, and all of a sudden I had this space where I could be naked, talk about sex, not feel ashamed about my nudity. There was something body-affirming in that for me.

Q: Did you go to dance competitions as research for the play?

A: No. I’m a huge fan of “Dance Moms.” That was the reason I started writing this play. I quit watching because I felt like Abby Lee Miller, the teacher, was literally destroying children. But that’s where I got the sense of that whole world: the type of dances they do, the lingo, the ferocity of wanting to win and the despair of not being the best and being in competition with your friends.

Q: Why did you like “Dance Moms”?

A:I think it was the pathos of the girls. They were so little when the show started, 8 to 11, and so sweet. There was something so heartbreaking and also so watchable about these girls really pushing themselves, the amount of heart they put into their dancing.

There are all these clips online of them being onstage and forgetting their dances. This makes me sound like a monster, but watching them freeze onstage, it’s like watching a car crash. It’s so horrible. They get so upset, and you totally understand, but it’s just — it’s gripping.

Q: Early on in the play, a dancer gets injured and nobody helps her. Can you talk about that moment?

A: That was there to set the stakes of how brutal and dangerous it’s going to be for these girls, how unforgiving. If you get hurt, no one cares, and you’re replaceable.

You have to be that perfect; even the smallest thing can be your downfall. Just talking about this is giving me anxiety.

Q: Why did you stop dancing?

A: To do theater. I wanted to be in the high school musical, and my ballet teacher didn’t like us doing anything but ballet. Quitting ballet is still one of the scariest things I’ve done.