Maddie Ziegler isn't your average 12-year-old. The pint-sized dancer prone to energetic, spasmodic, impossible-to-look-away-from moves has garnered critical acclaim for her work with the elite Abby Lee Dance Company, featured on the Lifetime reality series Dance Moms. Yet it's her collaboration with Aussie singer Sia that has propelled Ziegler to international fame: After the notoriously private singer tapped the young talent to star as her likeness for the videos and live performances of songs off her album 1000 Forms of Fear, it was like fire meeting gasoline.
Clad in her newly christened Sia uniform of a platinum blonde wig and nude leotard, the shockingly nimble performer gives two equally spellbinding turns in "Chandelier" (nominated for Best Music Video at this year's Grammys), and, in tandem with a half-naked Shia LaBeouf, in "Elastic Heart," which spawned controversy, dozens of memes, and earned a permanent spot in the pop culture zeitgeist. We chatted with Ziegler about Dance Moms, her grueling practice schedule, and cage-fighting with a former Disney Channel star. Read on for the full interview.
When did you first start dancing? I've been dancing since the age of two. I don’t really remember it, because I was little, but my mom signed me up and would put me in cute costumes. A lot of little girls get into dancing, but I loved it so much that I kept doing it.
What type of dancing did you begin with? I started with ballet, and once I started to really like it, I got into more—I did jazz and tap, and then kept going.
How big of an influence was your mom in your career? She signed me up for fun—she never pushed me. She’s a dance mom, but she's not a crazy one—she’s not one of those moms who makes me practice at home and advises on my every move. I’m very glad she’s not like that, because then I would not like dancing as much.
How many hours a week do you dance? With Dance Moms in L.A., we film on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. When we film in Pittsburgh, we film the same days, but we still dance in our studio when we're not filming, so I’m dancing every day except Sunday. I usually start at 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. on every day except Thursday, and finish around 9:30 p.m., with a one-hour break in between. On Thursday, I start at 8:30 a.m. at the studio acting, and I have ballet right after, and dance until the evening.
How did you and Sia first get in touch? She tweeted me and said that she was a big fan of the show and wanted to work with me. I didn’t really believe it at first. It’s not normal for someone to tweet you and be like, “Hey, be in my music video.” I was so excited, and two weeks later I flew to L.A. and filmed the video for “Chandelier.” The first day, we gave each other a big hug, and we’ve been best friends ever since. She’s like my family now. I just went to brunch with her the other day. She always tells me amazing stories, and she’ll do weird dances for me too.
Were you familiar with her music before you started working together? I knew of her, but she never shows her face, so I wasn’t sure what she looked like. I knew some of her songs like “Titanium,” but when I met her I didn’t realize how big she was. Her new album is so good, and I love the songs for the music videos I’ve done. She came out with one of my favorite songs a while ago, “I’m in Here,” and I didn’t even know it was hers!
What was it like dancing with Shia LaBeouf? Is he a good dancer? I never thought that I’d be dancing with Shia LaBeouf. When I heard he was going to be my partner, I was like, “Does he even dance?” He doesn’t, really, but he’s such a sweet person. He takes it very seriously, and I think he did really well. He got into character. He was confused when he had to put on those nude booty shorts, because he had to wear a dancer’s belt. He definitely wouldn’t typically wear that.
Are you a fan of Even Stevens? That’s how I know him—from Even Stevens and Holes! I didn’t really know him as an adult, but I knew him as a kid.
Have you two kept in touch since filming "Elastic Heart?" He texted me for my birthday. I’m so glad I met someone like him because he’s such an amazing inspiration to go off of as an actor. He’s very talented.
What was the environment like onset? It's a pretty emotionally-charged video. It’s emotional, but everyone was so positive and sweet and happy the whole time. There was the room with the cage, and the only people in there were the cameraman and me and Shia. There was a room connected to it, and that’s where Sia and the director were sitting. It took half a day for us to film.
You’re dressed identically in the videos for “Elastic Heart” and “Chandelier.” Was that intentional? Why the leotard? Technically, I’m Sia’s new face. I’m mini Sia, and she just wants the look to stay the same. I’ve worn the nude leotard in all of my performances: same wig, same outfit. It’s the same concept of the character, just different roles we’re playing. I’m still Sia, but in the “Elastic Heart” video, I was also playing a wolf. It’s important to keep the outfit simple because the acting is so intense.
How did you train yourself to make those wolf faces? Did you practice in the mirror? It was definitely hard for me, because I was emotionally pushed. I didn’t make up all my faces, it was the choreographer. I don’t know how to act like a wolf. I’m not hissing and growling in my everyday life.
How has your life changed since the Sia videos came out? At first Dance Moms changed my life, but when "Chandelier" and "Elastic Heart" came out, my life became crazy—performing with Sia all the time, and doing all this cool stuff. It’s so cool to be on the journey with her and everyone else.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve done so far? Performing on SNL was amazing, and getting to be on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. I met Jimmy Fallon the other day, and it was so cool. It’s amazing that I’ve done all of this, and I’m not even a teenager yet.
Do people stop you on the street now? Yeah. They used to before, but now they’ll be like, “Oh my god, I loved you in the Sia videos!” I’m so happy that people know me for more than just Dance Moms.
Watch the music video for "Elastic Heart" below, and buy 1000 Forms of Fear for $10 on the iTunes Store.