Step dancing. Say those words in this
Say those words in Toronto, Baltimore or, say, south central Los Angeles: The images are as different as highlands and ganglands---everything moves and it's just as impressive. There are props, too---not bows, but boots: a hip-hop score and attitude.
And this kind of step-dancing is also traditional. Rooted in Africa, it was transferred to America "in the beginning of the last century when black colleges opened," says Ian Iqbar Rashid, director of the new step movie How She Move. "Kids started to do a version of it, which evolved into competitive step-dancing. And it's moved to the streets."
Sources as disparate as the early-'90s college sitcom A Different World---which dedicated an episode to a sorority step competition---to David LaChapelle's 2005 documentary, Rize---about the community of krump and clown dancers in LA---have kept step in the mainstream's mind's eye. More recent films, such as Drumline and Stomp the Yard, aim to bring it to the forefront.
Almost all contemporary dance films, from Dirty Dancing to Save the Last Dance to Step Up, hinge on a couple brought together by complimentary moves so scorching they overcome the fact that they are from different sides of the proverbial tracks. How She Move, the debut feature script by Annmarie Morais, spins that plot line in a new way by presenting both sides in one person.
The movie's protagonist, Raya (newcomer Rutina Wesley), is on the fast track to med school when her sister's death bankrupts her Jamaican immigrant parents, forcing her to leave her tony private school and head back to her less-than-Ivy-League-friendly public high school in Toronto's notorious Jane and Finch neighbourhood. Raya sees this as a temporary setback---she plans to win a scholarship in order to return to the fancy school---but just a couple weeks in her old stomping grounds resurrect buried rivalries, old flames and, yes, her love of dance. (It helps that an upcoming step competition could net her the tuition money she needs when she tanks the scholarship exam.) Juilliard grad Wesley plays Raya with a quiet, observational intensity, as a studious, keep-your-head-down kind of girl. Yet, she only really comes to life when she finds herself facing off on the floor, away from equations and essays.
"It was like the search for Scarlett O'Hara, trying to find Raya," says Rashid from a Toronto hotel room, where he's minutes off a red-eye from London. "We went to community centres and dances classes and acting classes. It's a really tricky character. When we found Rutina she was perfect---I'd probably seen 2,000 young women at that point. She just popped. She's attractive but there's nothing hoochie about her. She's smart without being pretentious. You can imagine her in private school but you know she can scrap her way through public school."
Rashid, Canadian by way of East Africa---his first film was Touch of Pink, the 2004 comedy about an Indian man who can't come out to his very traditional mother and appeals to the spirit of Cary Grant for help---
shot How She Move in 25 days on Super 16mm. Most of the camera work is hand-held, including 13 of the 14 dance numbers, making the film distinctly different, visually. It's not always focused on the precision of the steps or the unison of the dancers---instead, it grabs little moments here and there, more akin to being in the audience and having specific things (the flash of a gold boot, a particularly well-executed booty pop) catch one's attention.
"The first consideration was literally money," says Rashid. "I had 25 days and no money! I kind of had to make it work. I basically had no more than three or four hours to shoot one dance number. I thought we'd shoot it like a documentary, we'd shoot the dance like a documentary. It wasn't about getting that big Broadway uplift feeling, but actually being there with the character and getting the energy the crowd must feel."
The film premiered in the world dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival last year---Touch of Pink played Sundance '04---where it was co-purchased by Paramount Vantage and MTV Films, studio shingles with great track records for youth-oriented and hipster-aimed indies (MTV got Napoleon Dyamite and Hustle & Flow out into the world; Paramount was the distributor behind An Inconvenient Truth and Into the Wild). In the year that's passed since the ink dried on that deal, Rashid has fixed a few things his tight shooting schedule and tighter budget wouldn't allow him to.
"One of the things I never felt we had enough time for was to do a proper finale," he says of the movie's climax, a huge step competition in Baltimore. "We had to rush through it and not give it the sort of big movie ending it deserved. So we re-shot that. We got better-known music," including Lil' Mama and Montell Jordan. "We changed the score. We didn't really have money for an orchestra the first time around. I got to do foley for the whole movie---before that we were just doing production sound. So the whole film was re-foleyed and has kind of a bigger sound and a bigger soundtrack. That all happened last summer."
Though How She Move was shot in Hamilton ("Hamilton does a very good Jane and Finch, let me tell you") and there are a couple of GTA references---such as Shawn Desman's character taking heat for being from Scarborough---it doesn't come off as distinctly Toronto, like a film such as Reg Harkema's Parkdale comedy Monkey Warfare. In fact, it barely feels "Canadian" at all.
"We didn't consciously set out to take out the references to Toronto but we didn't want to flag it and make it conspicuous for no reason," says Rashid. "So, the references to Richmond Hill, Jane and Finch and Scarborough are there and the fact that it's so Caribbean is a Canadian thing. We also didn't want to get into the territory of the CN Tower and flagging Canadiana. The kids in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood, they don't experience downtown Toronto in a way other kids might---their location is very specific."
Though How She Move, a gritty urban dance movie, appears to be entire galaxies away from Touch of Pink, which is a surreal cultural coming-out story, there's a connecting theme, though Rashid is happy to have a diverse filmography.
"Both films are really about the scars of migration," says Rashid, who lives in the UK these days. "That's the big kind of commonality for me. Touch of Pink was about this guy who, in a way, was running away from his Indianness and embracing Hollywood culture and Cary Grant. In How She Move, Raya's whole journey is fuelled by her mother: her mother's bitterness about not making the life she hoped to make and passing that bitterness to her daughter. They are very different and almost consciously so. I wanted to do something that used up a whole different set of muscles. And I hope to do the same with the next one."