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    Same-Sex Ballroom Dancing Documentary Hot to Trot Sizzles with Artistic, Political Passions

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    At 4:30 pm on September 22, the Roxie Theater will screen Hot to Trot, director Gail Freedman’s fabulous, crowd-pleasing documentary about same-sex ballroom dancing. The film profiles two couples—Emily Coles and Kieren Jameson in San Francisco, and Ernesto Palma and Nikolai Shpakov in New York—over four years, starting in 2012. Freedman gracefully captures the beauty and energy of the dancers, as well as the tensions that arise while they prepare for the 2014 Gay Games and a nail-biter of a competition. 

    Freedman recently chatted, via Skype, with me for the San Francisco Bay Times about her film.

    Gary M. Kramer: What was your criteria for the couples you profiled?

    Gail Freedman: I met Emily and Kieren on my first shoot at the 2012 April Follies. I knew right away I’d use them. They were great dancers, attractive and really comfortable with me and in front of the camera. They had interesting backstories. They were a well-oiled machine.

    I also wanted a male dance couple. I wanted one that was new, to see what happened with a new partnership. I met Ernesto in New York, and within five minutes, he told me his entire life story. But he didn’t have a dance partner at that time. When Ernesto wanted to go to the Gay Games, he convinced Nikolai, who never danced same-sex ballroom before. But he went to an event with Ernesto and they danced, and we talked, and it was clear that this was a really interesting combination. I started shooting them together and I knew they were keepers.

    Gary M. Kramer: You show the dancers’ full bodies, but also shoot close-ups to capture the emotions and the dancers’ concentration on their faces. Can you talk about your approach to filming?

    Gail Freedman: Joel Shapiro, who was my primary cinematographer, and has shot a lot of dance, said there are all these rules—which we broke: you show the whole body, you don’t break the frame, you don’t move your camera. But we couldn’t be on the floor during competition. Rehearsing was a different story. I wanted sweaty close-ups, gasping for breath, and a hand on a back and the sweep of the room and the gorgeousness of the choreography.

    Gary M. Kramer: There is an intimacy in the partnerships that I think you capture well. Can you talk about how the couples relate and respond to one another?

    Gail Freedman: Most dance couples are not life couples. They practice 20 hours a week. These relationships are difficult to navigate. There’s this creative tension between Ernesto and Nikolai that is good for the film, and I think in the film it was good for each of them that they expressed that. Ernesto says, “Nikolai gives me what I am not, and I give him what he is not.”

    Gary M. Kramer: We get to know the dancers, their struggles in their personal lives, their relationships with their parents and their partners. Can you talk about how you presented them?

    Gail Freedman: LGBT rights are the civil rights issue of the time. We have a core gay audience, but I really wanted the film to have a crossover mainstream appeal. I didn’t want to make a teachy-preachy film. You got to know these people where their humanity, in its fullest sense, just unfolds. I didn’t know what was going to happen with their lives. We were going on this journey together. They all have dignity and they were gracious enough to let me in and share that. They trusted that I would portray them in an honest, not saccharine, way.

    Gary M. Kramer: Why do you think that ballroom is not bigger in the U.S.?

    Gail Freedman: I think it’s becoming bigger in the U.S., but dance in general, and ballroom in particular, is much more prominent in European culture. That doesn’t happen as much here. Same-sex dance began in Europe, so a lot of dancers and LGBT dancers came to America because of acceptance, and that helped build the culture here. Dancing with the Stars helped. Latin dance doesn’t require as much space, and in New York there aren’t many places to dance (ballroom).

    Gary M. Kramer: For competitors and others, is the approach different for same-sex ballroom than it is for other dance competitions?

    Gail Freedman: I think that there is something about the supportiveness of the community that is not mirrored at a mainstream competition. Everybody cheers for everyone else, even if they screw up and their competitors get a better score. It’s “small-p” political even as they express their creativity and artistry. It’s important to them. Dance is a sport at the Gay Games, and not at the Olympics. And you can be amateurs. It’s about inclusion, personal best and community. That’s why same-sex dance will continue to thrive. 

    © 2018 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer