HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO screened as a part of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. For more information, head here.
In the middle of How to Dance in Ohio, a therapist says, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” It’s meant to highlight how everyone on the spectrum is radically different and no two diagnoses are the same. Such is the case with the subjects of this doc, so instead of focusing on providing massive amounts of information on autism, director Alexandra Shiva focuses on the subjects as they enter a little window of their lives: preparing for their first formal dance.
A formal is scary enough as it is, but people on the spectrum have difficulties with social cues and interactions that we take for granted. Even just walking up and saying “hello” to someone can be absolutely crippling to a person on the spectrum. So who would be crazy enough to put on a formal for them? All of the subjects attend Dr Emilio Amigo’s family counselling centre, where the focus is learning life skills. Dr. Amigo thought a formal would be a fun way to explore specific skills and face certain fears, and How to Dance in Ohio follows the weeks leading up to the big day.
We meet a lot of kids at the centre and get to know them, but the focus is on three young women: Marideth, a 16-year-old who loves non-fiction and spending time on the computer; Jessica, a 22-year-old who still lives at home and is learning new skills at a job placement for those on the spectrum; and Caroline, a 19-year-old who is attending college for early childhood studies and studying Japanese because she wants to go to Japan. These girls are bright and sweet and funny. They understand their diagnosis and are able to speak frankly about what it’s like being on the spectrum.
It’s inspiring and uplifting to watch, but it’s also a little bit sad. Shiva doesn’t focus on the negative, but anyone with an understanding of the spectrum knows the challenges that these girls face and how hard society works against accepting and accommodating people like them. And these girls are lucky with their loving families and the counselling center, but not every kid on the spectrum has support like that.
During the Q&A, Shiva mentioned that her hope with How to Dance in Ohio was to show the courage and resilience in these kids, and that they aren’t weird and shouldn’t be shunned. They just take in the world differently, but at the end of the day they are just like any other young person getting ready for their formal: excited and anxious and hopeful … and ready to dance.
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.