'I am tough on the kids because someone has to be,' she tells PEOPLE

By Reagan Alexander and Andrea Park
Updated May 17, 2016 11:05 AM
Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

Abby Lee Miller has faced backlash for her tough-love approach to teaching young dancers on Dance Moms, but, she says, she’s just trying to make them the best they can be.

At Dance Moms star JoJo Siwa’s 13th birthday party at Madame Tussauds Hollywood Wax Museum in Los Angeles on Monday, the longtime dance coach and choreographer opened up to PEOPLE about the good intentions behind her strict teaching style.

“I am tough on the kids because someone has to be. Lordy, lordy, what if Jocelyn, JoJo’s mother, said, ‘Honey, you’re wonderful. Honey, you’re fabulous,’ every minute, all day long? That is not the way to raise a child,” she said. “They have to learn a work ethic, they have to learn rehearsal etiquette and they have to learn to prioritize what they are doing in a day as far as their rehearsals and attending classes.”

Although Miller, 49, has been known to leave her dancers in tears – an often-repeated line is “save your tears for the pillow!” – she said that’s not her intention.

“I don’t want to see a child cry, nobody does,” she said. “However, there are lessons that need to be learned and I have things to teach – life lessons, technical lessons, specific terminology – and sometimes the kids get upset because of the mother’s reaction, or the other children are present.”

Miller defended her on-air persona, saying that she is “always looking out for the kids and the best interest of the underdog.”

“I just know in my heart of hearts that I am a good person,” she said. “I try to help people. For years and years I paid for kids’ trips out of town and I took kids to New York City: I paid for the gas, I drove them to the auditions to get a Broadway show.”

She continued: “If it was up to their mom and dad, they wouldn’t even have gone to the audition because Mom and Dad wouldn’t have taken off work and given up their pay to take their own kid, but I did. I did it.”

Miller also addressed her October indictment for bankruptcy fraud, to which she pled not guilty.

“Life was good, I was traveling all over the country with these students who were not my own children, promoting them, pushing them, doing whatever I could with them,” she said. “My father had passed away and he had always done all of my books, and things just spiraled out of control.”

She added: “I did everything that I thought that was right, what my attorneys were telling me what to do, and there were some mistakes along the way, and we corrected them, and I thought that they had all been approved and accepted, and that was it.”

Miller was indicted for allegedly hiding more than $755,000 in secret accounts after making false claims about her income. She was charged with bankruptcy fraud, false bankruptcy declarations and concealment of bankruptcy assets. She pled not guilty to the charges in November and, in December, filed a motion for an extension on the trial.

With reporting by REAGAN ALEXANDER