Award-winning director Brian Lilla witnessed first-hand the impact that ballroom dance had on his mother's grieving process after she had lost her husband and dance partner of 45 years. “I saw my mom dance at her weekly lesson with a man 30 years her junior could see it was the happiest moment of her week," says Lilla.
After being informed by his mother that she was far from the only widow who found dance to be the highlight of their week and, with further encouragement from his mother, Lilla began focusing on this rather unique community as the subject of what would be his next film. Lilla and his mother teamed up with a Florida dance studio owner, Caleb Young, and his instructors and students as they prepared for a spy-themed dance performance called "In Search of the Daytona Diamond."
If you remember the music inspired documentary Young@Heart from 2008, then you'll likely have at least a bit of an idea of what to expect from the similarly toned and inspired Ballroom Confidential, which opens in New York In January, 2014 before being released through DVD/VOD channels on February 11th. The film is both a heartfelt and frequently funny documentary that beautifully balances its personal stories with an eye towards designing a film that serves as clear evidence of the power of ballroom dance to improve the lives of these women as they deal with life, loss, aging, health challenges and much more.
Instructor Caleb Young is himself quite the inspiration, a former New York singer and drag queen performer who left the city following 9/11 and transplanted himself in Florida. Encouraged by his mother to pursue a position as a dance instructor, Young quickly found himself employed and not too long down the road had opened his own dance studio.
It prospered quickly.
While there's no question that there's a strong emotional core at the center of Ballroom Confidential, Lilla does a wonderful job of bringing the film's emotional resonance alive without it ever feeling like manipulation or even overtly intentional. Instead, he seems to have discovered the poignant truth within each of the film's participants. There are those who dance out of loss, those who dance to stay younger, those who dance because it fulfills a lifelong dream, and there's even one delightful couple who dance for each other.
Young is joined by choreographer Joe Mounts in preparing their cast for their upcoming one-night performance that is, as the film really kicks off, a mere two weeks away. As one might expect given the many challenges faced by these women, that two weeks is filled with dealing with health issues, the after-effects of a stroke and the emotional/physical baggage that life seems to toss our way.
Watching these dancers is stunning in its beauty as they become physically and emotionally transformed through dance. These women discover friendship, healing and personal strength as they participate in an activity that has been well documented by the New England Journal of Medicine to be one of the leading activities that can help reduce the risk of dementia in the elderly. It's also wondrous to watch Young himself, a man who has grown into a brilliant transparency that allows him to be fully present with those whom he teaches.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the stories that unfold in Ballroom Confidential including that of 85-year-old Margaret Russo, whose husband and lifelong dance partner died from the effects of dementia and left her praying for something to give her life meaning. Then, there's the story of 83-year-old nurse Lois Carter, whose history of dance started at the University of Kentucky in 1948 and lasted through her husband's death after the couple had relocated to Florida.
70-year-old Jean Bell didn't have the prior history as her mother had dismissed her desire to dance because of the cost of $3.00 a week. Now, the retired government computer programmer spends $1,000 a month pursuing this lifelong dream.
Ballroom Confidential doesn't shy away from the intimacy of dance and how it can even help work through unresolved emotional and body image issues. 63-year-old Mary Gaspary talks poignantly about the "crush" that she developed on Young and she's just as poignant in talking about how that "crush" was worked through so completely that she remains centrally involved with the studio to this day.
There are other stories, touching and funny and sweet and truly heartfelt.
Simply yet beautifully photographed and constructed with heart, humor and tremendous dignity for its participants, Ballroom Confidential is a "must see" documentary for those who embrace healing through the arts and the beauty and wonder of dance.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic