Two films at the Filmfest Hamburg struck me as being terribly close to each other in subject matter if not in treatment. Both were about the competitive dance world; however, where one film was all about projecting the positive aspects of dancing competitively, the other showed a darker reality. In First Position we are treated to a sympathetic view of six young dancers competing at the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the most prestigious dance competitions in the world. All are hoping to win a prize, scholarship or contract which will help them advance their careers. In contrast, Ballroom Dancer shows the negative side of competitive dancing where perfectionism and competiveness can destroy a dancer’s relationships and career.
First Position’s strength is that it worked to reveal the positive aspect of ballet dancing. While the dance world is indeed tough, it does not necessarily require the parents to be crazy stage moms (à la Dance Moms), nor do the dancers have to be anorexic. Quite a lot of time is spent on revealing the inner drive and passion that each child has for dancing. In the case of one family, the sister Miko has a great love and talent for danceing whereas her brother Jules only attends class to make his mother happy, and eventually quits so that he can focuse on other things he enjoys. This scene makes it clear that dancing, like any art form, requires passion and dedication, and the children who are successful have these traits. At another point, the focus shifts to the eating habits of the children, who were shown to be eating quite a lot. The emphasis there was that these children were skinny because they train rigorously for hours every day, and that it isn’t a result of a lack of eating. While it is clear that the stress affects every child, they are willing to undergo it all in order to achieve their dreams of being professional dancers.
Ballroom Dancer’s take on the subject of the competitive dance world is completely different. The film follows Slavik, a former champion ballroom dancer, as he attempts to make a final comeback. However, his grievous temper and aging body often puts him at odds with his new partner Anna. Ballroom Dancer focuses deeply on the deep, and often romantic, connection that makes up the relationship of Latin ballroom couples. Slavik’s perfectionism and competiveness reaches unhealthy heights, and has devastating results for his career. Although he comes to regret his actions, it becomes clear that the very aspects of his personality that allowed him to succeed in the past are bringing him down in the present. Watching Ballroom Dancer and First Position raises the question of whether competitive dancing can ever have long-term positive outcomes.
Both documentaries are beautiful in that they reveal fresh new looks into the world of completive dancing. Where First Position emphasizes the positive aspects of ballet dancing, and the passion it takes to become the best, Ballroom Dancer brings insight into the world where such passion can also be one’s downfall. The strength of both films is the beautiful dancing of their subjects, and in particular Slavik’s dancing in Ballroom Dancer has moments that take your breath away. In the end, dancing, like any art, can be a rewarding and life-improving venture. However, it can also become all-consuming as well, and if there is anything to be learned from these two films, it is that a balance needs to be struck or else there is always a chance that when age catches up to the dancer, devastation follows.