“Only When I Dance” is a documentary that focuses on two teenagers in Brazil. Living in the favelas of Rio de Janiero, advanced ballet students Irlan and Isabela both train on scholarships at Centro de Dance Rio, located in an affluent part of the city. “Only When I Dance” follows these two young dancers as they vie for the “next step”–scholarships to world-renowned training grounds–through international competitions.
Irlan is the dancer with the most promise. Naturally gifted, Irlan shows immense dedication, committing to school and ballet classes with the goal of becoming a professional dancer. These days, more boys are enrolling in ballet than 20 years ago, but still, it’s not everyday that you see one with bendy feet, long and lean legs, incredible flexibility, and talent with a capital T. Irlan is a ballet director’s dream. So it’s no surprise that, when competition season starts, he’s the leader of the pack. In fact, he blows away the competition at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland and later the Youth America Grand Prix in New York.
Both students’ come from nothing, and to get to these competitions, they have to make sacrifices, and their instructor, Mariza Estrella, who lives in the nicer parts of town, encourages them to follow their dreams. Irlan, through practice, has learned to balance his time and personal commitments, and even before the documentary begins filming, he’s already won several large competitions. But for Isabela, the downside to her dream is dire.
Estrella stresses that because Isabela is black (darker skinned than any of her balletmates), no Brazilian ballet company will hire her, and she must look elsewhere to dance professionally. Isabela competes at a local qualifying competition and advances, as one of 25 students, to the finals in New York. Yippee, the audience is thinking! Until everyone finds out that the trip will cost over $2,000. To find the money, her mother goes back to work at a customer service job, and her family, including her grandmother, takes out a series of loans to fund her trip. Sadly, she’s not successful and is cut after the first round of competition.
Isabela, though, isn’t your typical pre-professional ballet dancer. Now, I don’t say this regarding the race comment that Estrella continued to refer to. I say this because technically she’s not on par with many of the students who advance at these competitions. She has strong feet and a lovely nature to her upper body, but she’s not naturally “stretchy,” and she looks a limited in her hips.
One of the comments frequently discussed is that Isabela needs to lose weight, and this is incredibly hard for her to accept. Now, her body’s being projected 20 feet wide above my head, so I’m not going to judge her weight, but her body type isn’t the traditional ballet body. And if her body type, combined with her abilities, aren’t considered ideal for a professional ballet dancer, then Estrella had no right in encouraging her family to take out loans and extend themselves way beyond their means. It’s just irresponsible teaching and mentoring.
Director Beadie Finzi travels with the dancers as they go to school, ballet class, home, and abroad. She has a subtle way of highlighting Irlan’s and Isabela’s differences, yet we also see them support each other through rejection and big changes through a heartening tale of facing and overcoming challenges that most teenagers would never dream of. “Only When I Dance” shows an often-hidden part of ballet, and this movie is a true gem.
In Portuguese with English subtitles
“Only When I Dance” plays at the Roxie again tonight at 7 PM.