When she walks into our interview room at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, first-time film director Liz Friedlander looks flushed with the excitement of finally seeing months of her work on screen and captivated by the man who inspired them. She explains that the story of Pierre Dulaine, the real life dance instructor who taught inner city children to become ballroom champs, is not so much a story about dancing as it is a story about trust.
Urban elementary kids have to trust a refined European teacher that their hard work will not go unrewarded. Even scarier, they have to trust him that their peers won’t think them uncool for taking on the world of tango, rumba, and swing.
The children’s parents and principals have to trust that there is value to Dulaine’s program beyond fancy footwork—that the children will, as Dulaine promises, waltz away from their lessons with a new sense of dignity and respect for others. And Dulaine has to trust his inner-city students to take his program seriously and perform up to his expectations.
In marked contrast to all of this pinballing trust stands the film industry. Filled with cynical studio executives, if it is defined by anything, it is distrust. Distrust that audiences will respond to original stories and authentic material, distrust that a film that doesn’t slavishly cater to their tastes can resonate with teens and preteens, and distrust that moviegoers will be interested in characters who don’t boast fully developed bodies in underdeveloped clothing.
However enthusiastic director Friedlander and producer Diane Nabatoff were for the trust themes in Pierre Dulaine’s real story, they let the distrustful nature of their business get the better of them.
As anyone who’s seen the phenomenal documentary Mad Hot Ballroom knows, Dulaine’s “Dancing Classrooms” program began in 1994 with 10 and 11-year-olds from two New York City elementary schools. Through the strict discipline of ballroom dance, the children learn etiquette, poise, and the value of hard work. They also learned some difficult truths about competition when, at the end of the course, they compete in a citywide dance contest. The program was such a success that by 2004 it had spread to 58 other schools, with plans for further expansion.
Megan Basham is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide To Having It All
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