In the world of ballroom dance, gender roles seem to not only be traditional but down right strict. The pairs are always male-female, with the strict men lead-women follow rule of dance in place…as they have always been. Yet, there’s a growing number of dancers who find themselves wanting to break the rules they’ve been taught to dance with the same sex partners. And as director Gail Freedman found while making her new documentary Hot to Trot, these dancers are as committed and focused as any of their peers. Hot to Trot focuses on two dance couples, long time female partners Kieren and Emily, and male dance Ernesto Palma’s search for a new partner. In hopes of showing their stuff at the competitive Gay Games dance competition, Freedman tells an intimate story of dancers with an important message.
Lesley Coffin: How did you even learn about this movement? Were you aware of it before you began working on the film?
Gail Freedman: I was not particularly familiar with the phenomena myself. I was familiar with the Gay Games and knew of course that ballroom dance was enjoying a kind of renaissance in America. But it was partly serendipitous. I’d just completed production on a documentary I’d done on construction of the 9/11 Memorial and was in search of my next project. And I was looking for something different. My previous film hadn’t necessarily been depressing but it was a very heavy, serious subject matter. And I was looking for something that would feel a little lighter. And my lead cameraman Joel Schapiro mentioned to me that he knew a woman who ran a same sex dance group on the west coast. And something about that completely peaked my interest. So I called his friend Barbara and I just found the whole idea of it so fresh, which is what we’re all looking for. I loved that it wasn’t well known and the story would have a political side to the story. Mainstream dance excludes same sex couples, so the film could be an art-politics hybrid. And all those layers kept me interested, and then I found these characters who were really compelling and had really interesting backstories. It took me about 5 years to make the movie and another year presenting it at film festivals.
Lesley Coffin: I understand you came from the news background, in which you have a much shorter time with subjects and typically won’t allow a producer to take as humanistic approach to the subject. Did you start the project thinking this would be a project focusing on two dance couples or did the project change focus during production?
Gail Freedman: I always intended it to be very personal and character driven. As you know, there were somethings which changed the role someone would play in the film and how much they would participate. I always felt it should be a very personal film that focused on the lives of these dancers, not the subject of same-sex dance. In news, you often select a subject who can stand in for the larger subject. And you want a documentary to be about something larger, but my primary focus is on the lives of these dancers motivating where the story goes. I cast a film really thinking that I’m going to have a long term relationship with these people. But, I don’t know if the way I make documentaries is that different from the way I worked in the news. I did hard news, but more often I did features. I covered every beat, but I worked in TV News Magazines, and there approach to news was always character driven. I learned from Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes that you do a story, not an issue, and you need characters to tell a story. Hot to Trot is certainly more fleshed out in that way, but I’m taking the same approach I’d taken when I worked the news and even my earlier documentaries. The documentary about the 9/11 Memorial had main characters as a guide. Documentary filmmaking has been a natural evolution, and my journalism background really helps because of the research skills I developed and the journalistic ethics I have.
Lesley Coffin: It’s interesting that you use the term casting, something we almost exclusively hear about in terms of narrative films. How did you select the dancers you’d focus on?
Gail Freedman: We went to April Follies, which is a one day festival and what’s so great about that festival is, any level of dancer can compete but you’ll only compete against people at your level. In the evening, you see the Level A dancers compete, which has a lot of spectators as well because that’s such a fun show. So we were just shooting that day hoping to get enough material to put together a teaser to start raising some money. But I was also wanted to talk to as many people as possible who had potential for being good subjects. And that was the day I met Emily and Kieren. They each had an interesting story, they’d been a partnership for so long they were like a well-oiled machine, and they were comfortable being in front of the camera. So I felt they would likely stick with me throughout the production, which they of course did.
Once I had them on board, I thought I should select male dancers who were knew to dancing with each other. And if they were in New York, it would be easier and more economical for me because I live here. One of the men in the film, who said “it’s Fred and Fred and Ginger and Ginger” introduced me to Ernesto, telling me that he’s a good dancer, has charisma for days, and probably has a pretty interesting story. And so I met with him, and because he isn’t in the slightest bit shy, he proceeded to tell me his entire life story. He’d been dancing for a while, with men and women, and was interested in going to the Gay Games. And he didn’t have a partner yet, but I told him when you find someone, give me a call. He called a few months later and told me he’d found an experienced dancer, who’d gone to the Gay Games already. So we started filming really from the start of their partnership.
Lesley Coffin: When you make a movie like this, there is a very traditional, right way to film dance. You film in mid-shot, so you can see both bodies on screen. Sometimes you have to film a whole room to see multiple dancers on the floor. But you seemed to take a different approach. Did you set specific rules for how to film these dances so it focused on the personal, rather than the physical dance?
Gail Freedman: Filming dance is a great challenge. God bless my wonderful film editor. We broke a lot of those cinematic rules of how to shoot dance on film. I had two DPs on this film, Joel Shapiro on the east coast and Diana Wilmar on the west coast. And we had a much bigger team when we filmed the Gay Games. We were on a single crew throughout most of the film. Joel had filmed a lot of dance and knew those rules, but I knew early on that the intensity of the sweaty close-ups or intimacy of seeing the hand on someone’s back would help tell their story, even though we also had to capture the action. That’s really hard because there are lens that are better for one film of photography, but every time you have to change a lens, you risk missing action. When filming a rehearsal, you can ask dancers to do a dance over. But when they’re in competition you are at the mercy of your crew being able to capture the action while focusing on our characters. It was a constant balancing act, but we just had to keep reminding ourselves, this isn’t a film about dance, this isn’t a dance primary. It’s a film about dancers.
Lesley Coffin: This is certainly not the first documentary about ballroom dance, Mad Hot Ballroom was certainly a hit, and as you said the art form has become more popular in the US in recent years. What is it about this activity, which has strict rules, that allows it to carry this kind of feel good message to audiences?
Gail Freedman: It’s certainly very accessible in a way some dance, like contemporary or ballet, is not. As a spectator you watch dancers doing something we’re all familiar with. We’re familiar with Cha Cha, Rumba, Tango because of the decades we’ve been seeing it on screen. The basics of the dance haven’t changed. But it’s also juicy. Regardless of the pairing, there is something hot and sultry about watching it that makes you want to get up and move. Watching it made me want to take lessons, and I think a lot of people feel the same way. Watching great dancers will make you want to give it a try, because they make it look like so much fun. And while not specific to ballroom, although these are all dancers who work full time jobs and dance every day because they love it, it’s inspiring to see someone doing something they love at the top of their game. And at this point in our lives, we are so in need of something which leaves audiences feeling good and positive, and motivated.
Interview has been edited for purpose of clarity.
© Lesley Coffin (8/24/18) FF2 Media
Photos Courtesy of: First Run Features