Grace under pressure


Local mother (and Portsmouth High School graduate) Sheryl Atwood and her sons Tyler and Travis recently spent several weeks in Los Angeles filming "Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition." The boys finished strong, but out of the top spots.

They returned to their Jamestown home, and their husband and father Chris Atwood, without the $100,000 grand prize or the Joffrey scholarship, but they brought something far more important home, intact.

Their dignity.

For the uninitiated, the televised competition is a spin-off of the popular A&E series starring tough-as-nails/heart-of-gold/source-of-all-evil dance instructor Abby Lee Miller. The adjectives chosen by the dancers' mothers to describe Abby correlate exactly to where one's child lands on the dreaded "pyramid," Abby's weekly ranking/shaming ritual.

Sheryl and the boys, dynamic dancers and talented choreographers whom Sheryl aptly references in shorthand as TNT, were approached us for the first season. Despite the incredible potential for exposure, Sheryl declined. "It's a catch 22," she says. "How do we something like that while remaining true to who we are?"

Indeed, Travis and Tyler are friends with lots of the competitors from season one, and they got to witness the process, albeit second hand. When casting began for the second season, Sheryl wasn't too inclined to to throw their collective hat in the ring. "I found it to be a little disturbing, to be honest. But so far the boys have gone far in dance without losing sight of who they are."

And the producers made a compelling argument, suggesting the Atwoods do the show, show a different side of the competitive dance community than the hyper-aggressive, toxic behavior some "dance moms" display when the competition heats up. Despite Sheryl's misgivings, the boys were sold. "They talked to the producers and they loved the idea of doing the show," she says. "They wanted to do it."

Sheryl, a wellness and fitness coach with a masters degree in human development and experience as a family therapist, had a pretty good idea of what they were getting themselves into. Watching the now-aired series, it is clear that Sheryl would have  won the AUDC "Miss Congeniality" trophy, hands-down.

Not that the producers encourage congenial behavior. "We were taped and miked every waking moment, and we couldn't leave the set or use cell phones," Sheryl says. "It was like 'Survivor.' It's a brilliant approach — it really brings out the crazy. They took all these personalities and caged us, uncorked the wine. Then they'd start throwing grenades."

"To be fair, the kids are sheltered from most of the nonsense," she said. "When things got really crazy the producers ushered them out. The boys loved the experience, but I found it challenging."

Yogi Berra once said "Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets." Like so many of Berra's utterances over the years, it's every bit as true as it is funny. Anyone who has spent any amount of time on the sidelines in youth sports has seen that parent — the one who yells too loud, and too often; belittles their own child and even others; and treats every tryout like the MLB midwinter trade deadline.

While the heat of a nationally-televised competition with six-figure prize money may be an extreme example, shows like AUDC shine a light on what is happening on soccer fields, baseball diamonds, and dance studios across the country. "A lot of parents have lost perspective," Sheryl notes. "Manners are out the window. Even when people are being outwardly polite, there is this undercurrent that suggests winning at all costs is the goal. There is far too much emphasis on being better than the competition, rather than being the best you that you can be."

For Sheryl, it wasn't all bad. Ultimately, the producers of AUDC are providing entertainment. Naturally they are going to show hot-button moments between the mothers; clips of them relaxing and doing yoga, and supporting and comforting each other, will end up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

Sheryl choses her words carefully when talking about the other mothers. She is not interested in judging anyone. "I'm still in contact. I feel a deep care and concern for everyone on the show," she says. "And I would do anything for those kids. We all went through it together. My way is not better, it's just what works for me. So when I got back to Jamestown, the market, the PTO, I'm still who I am. I didn't throw my principles out the window.

"When you boil it all down, whether you're a hysterical dance mom or a beet-red dad, screaming on the sidelines, we all have a lot of hopes pinned on our kids and we are all trying to do the right thing."

Carl Jung said as much when he said "Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children, than the unlived lives of the parents."

Ultimately, that's an important lesson for parents, and one that often gets missed. How much do you push? Especially when you have invested as much time and energy into a skill or sport as Travis and Tyler have invested in dance? On some level, parents know the answer. They need to butt out.

Of course, that's easier said than done, even for grounded parents. "Since the competition,  there are all these opportunities crossing our paths — and they just want to be normal kids! They just want to be teenagers," Sheryl said. "Part of me is like 'really?' But this has to come from them. In a few years will they ask me why I let then pass up some opportunities?  Maybe, but I would rather be in that place, than the opposite.

"Would we do it again? I actually think we would. I am so proud of how my kids conducted themselves, and that we had the opportunity to try out our family principles in this exaggerated situation. We didn't call it Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition among ourselves. We called it the "Atwood Ultimate Dynamic Collaboration."

Travis and Tyler Atwood are looking forward to teaching a Hip Hop class at Just Dance, a studio located within 426 Fitness, 426 Metacom Avenue in Warren, and owned by Sheryl's friend Sherry Winn. It will be held at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Jan 12. To reserve a spot, contact Sherry at 401/486-4478, or email


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.