On Netflix’s new original docu-series, “Dancing Queen,” viewers get a look at Justin Johnson and his day-to-day life at his dance studio, Beyond Belief Dance Company. Johnson, better known as drag queen Alyssa Edwards, spends much of the series coaching teams of youths at BBDC, with Assistant Director Marcella Raneri by his side.
Raneri, who was also the director at Prestige Dance Company in Addison, was one of the most polarizing factors of “Dancing Queen’s” first season. Throughout the season, Raneri is met with criticism by some of the mothers for being “harsh” on the students, while Johnson and crew, along with fans of the show, insist Raneri is simply doing her job.
I meet Raneri at a coffee house in downtown Plano. Raneri, two weeks hot after the premiere of “Dancing Queen,” is joined by her mother, Gabrielle Gilmore, who is one of Raneri’s biggest supporters. Raneri, having only watched the series once since its premiere, insists that she does not feel any more famous after going through the production process with Johnson and with Netflix.
“I see Justin as my good friend,” Raneri says. “He and I connect so well. I don’t see him as the famous Alyssa, so it was more exciting to work with him than it was daunting.”
Johnson and Raneri met ten years ago within the competitive dance world. Since then, they had often talked about working together, but it had never come to fruition, until August of last year, when Johnshon approached Raneri to assist her on a Netflix docu-series which would become “Dancing Queen.”
“We had filmed a pilot about a year ago,” Raneri says. “It was supposed to be a dance-off with Prestige and Beyond Belief. That didn’t really go anywhere, but later the producers approached Justin and said, ‘hey, we really like you and Marcella together, and we love the idea of combining Prestige and Beyond Belief, so let’s make this work.’”
Production on “Dancing Queen” took place over the course of 10 months. During filming, Raneri often clashed with some of the parents of Johnson’s students, with the parents often citing Raneri as the reason for their children’s mistakes during rehearsals. Things come to a boil when Raneri tells the students that they won’t be ready for their competition in Los Angeles if they don’t pick up the slack.
“Kids, especially younger ones, need constructive criticism,” Raneri says. “They need to know that sometimes when you hear ‘no,’ it’s a good thing. It helps push them to work harder. We want them to handle rejection in a positive way, and not go on feeling defeated.”
Raneri believes that a parent’s involvement in their child’s activities can either positively or negatively impact the development of their skills.
“You want to be able to trust whoever’s training your kids and you want to believe that whatever the coach is telling your kids is in their best interest,” Raneri says. “You want to leave them alone, because they’re going to want it on their own. If a parent is too involved, it can be hindering to the child’s growth.”
Gilmore, Raneri’s mother, nods in agreement with her daughter.
“I have another daughter who is 14 years old, Gilmore says. “I’ve always believed that if I take her to a coach, I need to trust them. I don’t believe in being my daughter’s coach behind the scenes. Ever. It causes a lot of problems.”
“I really wanted the parents to be comfortable with me and to trust me enough to train their children,” Raneri says. “We just never got to cross that bridge. When they all came into the studio and started to yell at me, it was hard to handle, because there was so much going on at one time.”
The criticism from the dance moms was so overwhelming to Raneri that she decided to take a hiatus from the series after just four episodes.
“I needed to just take some time away from dancing in general,” Raneri says. “I thought I wanted to quit altogether. I needed time to heal, but I think over time, I got better. I started dancing, traveling, and judging again.”
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During her hiatus, Raneri kept in touch with Johnson, who she reiterates was kind, caring, loving and understanding throughout the healing process.
“When everything happened with the moms, Justin saw that I was just broken,” Raneri says. “He was very supportive of me and never faulted me for anything that happened.
“There was a lot going on in her personal life,” adds Gilmore.
During filming, Raneri had lost a close friend, and she feels that she didn’t really have time to process it, due to the fact that “Dancing Queen” was taking up most of her time. While viewers may not have known what was happening in Raneri’s personal life, they were still very supportive of her following the verbal altercations with her and the dance moms.
Following “Dancing Queen’s” premiere, there was an outpour of support for Marcella, in her defense against the moms. Tweets with the hashtag #JusticeForMarcella began filling up the timeline.
“I was told not to read anything on social media,” Raneri says, “but then, people started sending me stuff and most of it was really positive. I think they could see on camera that the moms were really aggressive towards me.”
“We got teary-eyed reading some of the messages,” Gilmore adds. “As a mother, it means a lot seeing all of these kind messages directed toward my daughter.”
While “Dancing Queen” has yet to be renewed for a second season, Raneri is keeping her hands full.
“I work out a lot and I still dance,” Raneri says. “I do the “Too Posh” podcast with my mom, which is very healing, because I get to talk a lot and express my feelings that way.”
On Raneri and Gilmore’s “Too Posh” podcast, the mother/daughter pair touch on a variety of topics, including romance, pop culture, and current events. Raneri hopes to use the platform she’s gained with “Dancing Queen,” and “Too Posh” to help empower young girls and women.
“I want to instill confidence in younger women and help them be strong and independent,” Raneri says. “Our family has been through a lot, so I want to use what I’ve learned to help others.”
In regard to handling rejection, Raneri advises that those in the competitive dance world follow a “three-day rule.”
“If you’re sad, you get three days to cry,” Raneri says, “but then you’ve got to pick yourself up and get back to work. You’ll get told ‘no’ more than you get told ‘yes,’ but it only takes one ‘yes’ to change your life.”
“Dancing Queen” is currently available for streaming on Netflix. Raneri and Gilmore’s “Too Posh” podcast can be streamed on iOS and Android.