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.