"How She Move:" Sweet Movie with Spectacular Step Dancing

I haven’t liked many of the recent dance movies, so I went into this one with a bit of trepidation. But I was very pleasantly surprised. “How She Move” tells the story of Raya, a smart, hard-working high-school girl from a poor, drug infested Canadian town who manages to get into an elite private school that she hopes will lead to college, then medical school. After her sister dies of a drug overdose, however, she must return home, her parents having spent all of their savings on the rehab. Of course she faces a great deal of ridicule and taunting from her former classmates, jealous and bitter about her escaping the ghetto. Through step dance, she regains both their friendship and the funds necessary for her to continue her education. The plot isn’t fully formed, and characters’ motivations are sometimes questionable, but because it offers a clear portrayal of a specific community, is well acted, and the dancing is so strong (and dance scenes so well-filmed!), it won me over anyway.

And the plot has some nice little wrinkles stemming from the specifics of the dance. After being baited into a fight / ‘step-off’ with a former rival, Raya gets the idea to join a team of step dancers, compete at an upcoming “monster” championship in Detroit, and hopefully win the $50,000 cash prize. One impediment to the award money is, these step dancing competitions in their sexism never give the top award to a girl group, and the groups are firmly gender-segregated — not because those are the rules, but because that’s just the way it’s always been. After winning a dance-off with a pompous macho shit, Raya manages to convince a male group to let her in. This of course causes some problems with the girls who’ve just come to accept her. After a few more obstacles are thrown into her path, she performs a winningly kick-ass routine with the guys, involving some unique choreography that makes humorous use of her sex, and all’s well that ends well.

So the dancing: I’ve actually never seen Step before, though I found out after the movie, over dinner with Ariel, that it’s hardly new; her mother used to dance it in college, where the sororities would organize team competitions. I love it! It’s likely evolved over the years though. To me it looked like it had roots in Irish Step dancing and Tap, and it possibly even borrows a bit from West Indian Reggae (?…), and in its current form is combined with Hip Hop and maybe Krumping, with some break-dancing tricks (head spins and arobatics) thrown in, though the emphasis was definitely not on the tricks. Dancers would swiftly raise a leg, clap hands together underneath it, slap a hand on an opposite knee, then on a heel raised up in back, all at lightening speed. This was combined with snaky, undulating body rolls, a super-fast back and forth swing of the pelvis, stylized rhythmic one-footed hops, throwing oneself bumping and grinding to the floor for body-rolling push-ups – just a lot of fun basically, and not easy-looking moves. Teams were also judged on originality of choreography and theme.

And the filming of the dance scenes is excellent. You don’t even think that much about camera angles unless you’ve seen the typical PBS-aired Ballet where someone has just plopped a camera up at the edge of the stage filming the whole thing straight on, and you moan, ugh, dance just doesn’t translate to film. It can though, and this is a perfect example of it. Camera lenses home in on a particular dancer, a body part making a most impressive movement (never smutty though!), pan out to the entire group when it’s making a cool pattern or to emphasize the synchronicity, gaze down at a lift or tumble from above or peer up at a jump from below. An experienced filmmaker with a vision is so necessary to filmed dance. I do wish, though, that at some point someone would film a turn or jump from the dancer’s perspective… I think that would be very cool.

The film is very low-budget, which I liked — I felt like its grainy quality gave it a kind of home-made, authentic look, like you were getting a real glimpse into someone’s camcorder-eye view of their world. I also thought the acting was good. Melanie Nicholls-King, who played Raya’s mother, in particular stood out. Malvin Jacobs, as the Tolsoy-toting dork also won my heart (at least I think it was Jacobs; most of these actors are new and don’t have imdb photos so I can’t be sure). Anyway, it’s a sweet movie and a nice portrait of a dance form and a community.

8 Comments

  1. I think you hit on something about ballet and film. You really need a videographer (that’s what they’re called these days??) with a dance sensibility, perhaps someone whose been or is a dancer AND a film maker AND can get on to into and around the stage to reveal how stunning movement and choreography can be.

    There was a discussion about binocs over at BT and I raised the comment about what DO you look at with your binocs. To me they are a bit like zooming in with a close camera angle and I can envision some very powerful videos of dance IF IF IF someone would go for it.

    Patrico Melo over at the Winger is a n amazing photographer.. of dance, and he IS a dancer! So that supports my thesis.

    Slightly OT here. I attended the MetOpera’s new (2007) Madama Butterfly with Anthony Menghella producer (the english patient). One think which blew my mind and had me jonsing for it for ballet was a HUGE mylar mirror which was suspened above the stage at 45° which gave the audience a bird’s eye view of the “action” below. The set design was very autere and graphic and so the image of the set and performers with their Japanese costumes was visually stunning. So I am thinking WOW imagine that for ballet.. especially some of the more intricate corps work!

    I’ve had the discussion a few times about the best seats for ballet/dance in Linc Center and for me it is the par terre (can’t afford ever)… grand tier… do on very special occasions (ouch) and dress circle front which gives me a but of a top down view. Nose bleed section is too top down for the entire ballet. Down at the orchestra seats you see lots of overlap in the choreography and lose some of the real spacial sense you get with an elevated perspective.

    Having been to several dress rehearsals, you will see all the photo gear down in the orchestra at about row 15 or 20 or there abouts. Makes from great press shots, but misses out in my opinion on the visual potential of what’s on stage. And some of the sets and staging and choreography really would be mind blowing with some creative perspective and imaging.

    Since you attend so many performances you must have some thoughts on this… since we can only see a performance from the seat we are sitting in and there are so many more interesting ways to see it. Does this ever occur to you?

  2. Thanks for all of this SanderO — that is really fascinating about the mirrors! I think it could work wonders for ballet, especially certain productions. Wow, that really sounds cool — I’m going to mention it to Kristin! As for seating, yeah, you definite get a different perspective depending on where you sit, and ideally, I’d love to see every production from different vantage points, but of course I can’t do that. I’ve sat all over the place and my favorite seats are orchestra because I like to see the dancers up close. If you sit far enough back in orchestra you can still see the overall effect of the choreography, but you can see that as well all the way up at the top — sometimes the top is actually better for viewing a ballet that contains a lot of geometric patterns. For dramatic story ballets, I definitely prefer to be as close up as possible. Definitely, the best seats are those that are up one tier — the First Ring in NYCB and the Grand Tier (I think it’s called) in the Met — because then you get an ideal picture both of the dancers and the choreographic patterns. Also, since you’re up one level the sightlines are better than those in orchestra. But, as you point out, those are really expensive…

  3. Tonya, If you get chance do see the MetOpera Madama, the mirror thingy us mind blowing visually. It’s HUGE… really huge. I got lucky one morning after a meeting across from Lincoln center. I saw all the people hanging there and knew something was up. Someone said it was a dress rehearsal… so I decided to get my ass inside. I went to one of those nice ticket takers to plead for a ticket and he passed me a first row center seat on the grand tier. OMG that was amazing. I sat next to the kind woman who surrendered the unused ticket.

    I’ve now been to several dress rehearsals at the Met for Opera and Ballet and they are very cool.

    The first level up at the Met is the parterre, then the grand tier follow by the dress circle. Then it’s nose bleed as far as I am concerned. There is standing room on the dress circle and back of orchestra.

    Seeing the orchestra is not possible from the orchestra section either, of that matters at all.

    I don’t go to CC much, but I am on for 2.21 for Vishneva in the grand tier. it’s quite close at the CC and very intimate. I am hoping that Diana will not disappoint. She is a rather amazing dancer.

    She’s also dancing for me on my birthday this Spring at the Met. Lucky me! Then I get to go sailing for memorial day weekend.

    I can’t see expressions of performers even in the 10th row and use binocs when i want to be close in. I really like being right there. My eyes must be not as good as yours.

    I was at the Opera on Tuesday for Barber of Sevilla and I was watching the lovely and very talented Elina Garanca thru my binocs and she looked right at me… of course she didn’t know and could probably not see anything in the house… ya know staring out into the blackness of the audience… what performers often do.

    But I could see her eyes looking right at me. It’s weird like that… someone 100 feet away can look at you and you know it is YOU in their gaze and not the person next to you. We have very keen visual processing for this stuff. The Garanca glance was just a random thing, but boy did it surprise me because.. with the binocs I was looking at her so intimately and she stared right back. Like I got caught peeking. If you use binocs… and I love to.. and it happens to you…. you will know the feeling. Performers usually don’t look at the audience as much as at each other. No?

    But I love to see the volume, and the geometry and that’s why some height and distance lets me take it all in… and who needs to receive the sweat flying off a whirling dancer?

  4. Oooh stepping! I used to love going to the step shows in college.

    Stepping long pre-dates hip hop and grew up out of a combination of military drilling and african dance (as far as I know, it has no connection to Irish step dancing) It started in traditionally black fraternities and sororities. I’ve only ever seen shows where it was all sororities or all fraternities, but not both together, so the gender segregation thing might go back to that.

    I didn’t find the stepping on Dance War too interesting. They were well coordinated and stuff, but the routine seemed to lack the energy and inventiveness of real stepping. I thought the same thing when it turned up on SYTYCD:
    http://www.shimmyblog.org/2007/06/what-real-stepp.html

    Heh, this is makes me think it’s a good time to go trolling YouTube for more great stepping videos.

  5. Thanks Natalia — oh, we never had step shows at my college — I missed out! Military drilling — I can see that. I don’t remember it from SYTYCD — I’ll look at your blog. And let me know if you find any good videos!

  6. Tonya,

    Natalia is right. Stepping (which is what it’s usually called, not step dancing (sorry, pet peeve ;)) orginates and is still pretty much centralized with the black sororities and fraternities of the U.S. It was not influenced by Irish stepping, but by African dance. I’m glad it’s gaining more “mainstream” popularity, but with that comes a dilution of what stepping really it is.

    For the most part, a real stepping routine is more theatrical (with the step team espousing why their soro or frat is the best throughout the routine) and less choreographed hip-hop. Most step routines have long interludes where members of the team perform song, chants, etc. which are historically tied to their frat/soro. Actually, most of these “stepping” movies are not chronicling stepping, but that of hip-hop dance crew competitions. Most stepping competitions are between sororities and frats. If a stepping competition involves non-Greek groups those groups are usually kids who are coached and/or sponsored by local sororites and/or frats.

    Here’s a video of the University of Alabama, Delta Sigma Theta step team performing a teaser routine: http://youtube.com/watch?v=MT6Qv-wbkW4

    Here’s a video of the Wayne State, Omega Psi Phi step team: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nkao-ikHhSI

  7. Thanks for those videos, Reese. Funny but I originally called it Stepping in the title of my post but in most of the reviews that I read of the movie, they kept calling it step dancing, so I thought I was wrong! Stepping sounds much better. I’m sad — we didn’t have these at all at my school; I missed out :( Yeah, the movie is definitely different — a good deal of it was hip hop and break dancing.

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