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  • Writer's pictureKristyn Burtt

The Moment 'Dance Moms' Gianna Martello Knew Maddie Ziegler Was A Star

Photo credit: Ryan West

Gianna Martello has been a steady presence on Lifetime's Dance Moms for the last five years. Longtime fans know she isn't getting into the fray between the moms and Abby Lee Miller. Instead, she's a steady and constant presence in the rehearsal studio for the young dancers.

Martello spoke with Dance Dish about that epic rise to fame in 2011, when she knew Maddie Ziegler was a star and what she wants to do next after the series ends.

What did you expect from Dance Moms when it first aired in 2011?

We expected nothing. We signed on for a six-week docu-series in the summer. We didn’t think anything would come of it, so we were doing our own thing in the studio and in competition.

What was it like for the cast when you realized that the show was a huge hit?

I can remember being in New York City with one of my friends from college and seeing the New York Post with Abby and three of the little girls on the cover or in the pages of the paper. It was at that point I realized, Whoa, a lot of people are watching this show. This isn’t just fun in our dance studio anymore, this is really huge.

Were the moms bickering before this started or did they do it for the cameras?

We had issues with these moms before the TV show. Before Lifetime, it was always about us doing our usual routine at the studio because the moms sitting upstairs and fighting was nothing new.

Photo credit: Bobby Quillard

What have you learned from Abby Lee Miller since you started as a student and now are a part of her staff?

I’ve been with Abby since I was little. I feel like I learned so much more than just dance lessons from Abby. I learned which fork to use in a restaurant, how to tip the valet or other things you wouldn’t expect your dance teacher to be teaching you — more than just tendus and battements.

She coached us on interview skills, how to do our résumés… we got so much more than just a ballet class.

What drew you to teaching and choreography?

I was always the kid in the routine who knew the music really well or would know if someone was off the counts. I always had that eye. I started teaching when I was 16 with some of the Dance Moms girls when they were just babies. I would assist Abby on the weekends with her choreography and competition rehearsals.

I started to choreograph my own sections and routines and it just grew from there.

What is your strength as a choreographer?

Trying to get all of the girls to look as one person. Whenever I clean a routine, I nitpick everything from the position of their chins to the lines of their shoulders. I am getting them to breathe at the same time.

Photo credit: Bobby Quillard

When did you recognize Maddie Ziegler’s talent?

I started teaching Maddie when she was five and she never spoke in class. She always stood in the back corner. She was the baby in the class.

I could always tell her brain was a step above everyone else because she would always ask questions that were so advanced for a five or six-year-old. She wasn’t the best in the class, but she was the smartest.

What would surprise us about Maddie?

I think she always bottled up her energy and just released it on the stage. She’s just a different person performing onstage. Where does that come from in such a tiny, little composed person?

Who stepped into that leadership role now that Maddie has exited the series?

I think that Kalani [Hilliker] because she’s 16 now. Abby and I have been challenging her to take those Maddie roles and she’s been successful at them. She’s taken it upon herself to be that glue that holds the team together.

Photo credit: Ryan West

Do you stay in touch with some of the dancers who have left the show?

A lot of the dancers who left at the beginning of the series, I don’t stay in touch with. I do see Maddie and [younger sister] Mackenzie quite often. I do see Jojo [Siwa] whenever I can when I’m in LA.

Now that there are two studios — Pittsburgh and LA — do they operate the same?

Abby does not manage the Pittsburgh studio anymore and I haven’t been there in awhile. The LA studio is up and running and huge now. I teach full-time in the LA studio, but will be in the Pittsburgh studio for the holidays and extra filming weeks.

What are the misconceptions about Abby Lee Miller’s personality?

I grew up with Abby and I have been with her over 20 years. She’s one of the most generous people I know. Before we had a show, the moms never came on the trips. We used to have a lot of alone time with Abby and got to do fun stuff with her — go shopping, go to the movies.

People don’t get to see that Abby is a fun person to be around…most of the time [She laughs].

Do you think some of the criticism comes mostly from people outside of the dance world?

She’s a tough coach. If you are really going to do this for a living, then you want to have a tough coach. “Oh good job…,” that’s for your mom to say. You want your coach to find your faults and that’s what she does.

Is there a dream project you would like to work on?

A pop-star tour, but I am hopefully going to see Dance Moms until the end and then we’ll go from there.

What would you tell your 2011 self before Dance Moms blew up?

Brace yourself. I am there to teach and work with the girls. I am not there to get into any mess with the moms. I have stuck to that and I am glad that I did.

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