I am obsessed with popular screendance. This statement should come as no surprise to those who know that I just submitted my PhD dissertation on the American television show So You Think You Can Dance, which included watching as many dance films, dance series, dance web series, and dance (music) videos as possible – for framing, general enjoyment, and procrastination that could still be labelled research. Most recently I have been obsessed with the new Justin Bieber dance music video to his single “Sorry”, which features New Zealand dancer, choreographer, and 8-time Hip Hop World Champ Parris Goebel and her all-female Hip Hop crew ReQuest and no Justin Bieber (except for the song, but somehow that doesn’t really count, because it is so much about the dance and the dancers).
The video was released a few weeks prior to Parris Goebel’s dance film project Born To Dance (A Vendetta Films, Severe Features, Storytime Films, in association with the New Zealand Film Commission and New Zealand On Air), which hit a select few Melbourne movie theatres last Thursday. Of course I went to see it and after watching the trailer and some of the extra video content on YouTube (and multiple other Parris Goebel vids), it is fair to say that I was more than excited. Also, this cameo/scene that was circulated prior to the movie release.
Is the film script and plot a bit stilted? Yes. Was the dialogue wooden and awkward at times? Yes. Did the film reiterate the usual Hollywood Hip Hop dance film tropes – preparation for a final battle, rivalry between 2 different crews (here Freaks – formerly 2PK and Too Freaky – aka the good crew versus K-Crew aka the bad/mean crew) a friendship tested, dance as intrinsic and vital to the main protagonist’s persona and as a means for fame and achievement? Yes, it did. However, despite all this I was surprised in a few instances.
First of all the film turned out to be a surprisingly local production. The cast is mostly of Maori descent, which includes director Tammy Davis, part of the writing team (Hone Kouka), the main protagonist Tu, who is played by Hip Hop dancer Tia-Taharoa Maipi, and most of the other dancers. It was filmed on location in Auckland and kept with the Maori inflected English of the performers as well as playing on the difference between Auckland North Shore (affluent) and South Shore (lower economic strata). The difference between the Shores is highlighted by Tu’s 3-hour journey to K-Crew’s rehearsal audition process, which includes changing buses 3 times in order to get there, which at the same time gives spectators a sense of Auckland as a city in those moments the cityscape is captured through the bus windows.
The other thing that was really surprising and a departure of the Hollywood Hip Hop film tropes was the inclusion of an openly out-and-proud gay male Hip Hop dancer, Tino, played by Michael Metuakore, a member of The Royal Family Hip Hop dance crew, who just landed a job as a background dancer for Jennifer Lopez. Tu meets Tino at the K-Crew auditions and bonds with him in a way, that has Tino becoming Tu’s second, no, third sidekick (the other two are his best friend Benji, played by Stan Walker, and Vonnie, played by female Hip Hop dancer Onyeka Arapai). Tino is subjected to two instances of homophobia from one of K-Crew’s (white) male dancers, both of which he counters, because he is nobody’s victim and a freaking amazing dancer, too. The final battle scene, in which multiple crews performs, also features a queer, mostly male, Vogueing/Whacking dance crew, which again departs from Hollywood Hip Hop dance films in which only female crews are seen vogueing and whacking in the big final battle.
There is one storyline that the film could have very easily done without: the romance between Tu and American ballet dancer turned Hip Hop dancer Sasha (played by SYTYCD Season 4 alumni Kherington Payne) who, for an inexplicable and highly unlikely reason relocated to Auckland. It is a nod to what Raquel Monroe called “white girl in the middle” trope in her analysis of Step Up 2: The Streets in her chapter in the The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen. A nod to a trope the movie could have so easily done without. Though I suspect they included the love interest because it is part of the genre and featuring Kherington Payne might draw in a broader (international) audience as she has her own SYTYCD and Fame remake fan base. According to her Instagram, Payne had heaps of fun in New Zealand, though.
Having said that, the main focus of the movie is on its dance content, which is amazing and vibrant and colourful, not unlike the “Sorry” video, and it shows off New Zealand’s dance talent as well as the talent of its choreographer. The camerawork and editing add to the impact of the choreography, creating moments of in-your-face intensity, which left me joyful, invigorated and ready to dance by the end of the film. So yep, they are definitely Born To Dance.