(2014, USA; 85 minutes)
directed by Brian Lilla and produced by JoAnn Lilla
reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody
Filmmaker Brian Lilla's mother, JoAnn Lilla, a real estate agent, took up ballroom dancing after losing her husband of 45 years. The vibrant changes he saw in her moved him to make a documentary about other Florida seniors, many of them widows, discovering new life and direction through taking ballroom dance classes with instructor Caleb Young.
Young--once a singer-songwriter and drag performer in New York--returned home to Florida after 9/11 and the breakup of a relationship. On the urging of his mother, he became a ballroom instructor, later opening the Absolutely Ballroom studio, a quick success. Lilla's Ballroom Confidential introduces us to the caring, sensitive Young, his choreographer Joe Mounts and several of their resourceful students, aged 60s through 90s, as they prepare for the annual studio show.
Some came with at least a little background in dancing; others, none. One shows off her closet-load of fancy dresses and accessories expressly for ballroom. But all seem transformed by the grace and glamour of the dance and the way Young and Mounts appeal to their innate sense of theater and role-playing. Ballroom even manages to win over Young's motorcycle-riding dad who overcomes his initial discomfort--"It's too feminine for me"--and becomes not only a student and sought-after male partner but the studio's lighting-and-sound guy.
Shirley Kirth, a stroke survivor with regal bearing and a penchant for cussing, doesn't want to be like other women in her retirement home, doing nothing but playing Bingo and dominoes in the balmy weather. "It seems like anyone over 60 just wants to sit on the couch, and I'm horrified," she says. Class fees can add up fast for these retirees, even at ethical businesses like Absolutely Ballroom, but Margaret Russo calls her lessons "an investment in my well-being." Lila's film shows that as a way to improve confidence and mood, enhance brain function and keep alive human touch and connection as one ages, ballroom dancing has much to recommend it.