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  • Jennifer Green

Review: "Only When I Dance"

It is only when he’s dancing that Brazilian teen Irlan Santos da Silva says he feels like himself. Born and raised in one of Rio de Janeiro’s impoverished favelas, ballet has offered Irlan an escape from the chaos of the city streets. He confides this to director Beadie Finzi’s omnipresent camera in the 2009 documentary Only When I Dance, an intimate character portrait of two young dancers following their passion to overcome the odds of their upbringing in the Brazilian metropolis.

The second teen is Isabela Coracy Alves Nascimento Santos, one of the only black ballerinas at their dance school, the Centro de Danca Rio. Her dream is to dance in a classical ballet company, an ambition their teacher, Mariza Estrella, notes is next to impossible in Brazil because of her race. Instead, Mariza is intent on helping Isabela land a spot with an international company. To do that, she’ll need to participate in local, national and international competitions to get noticed. This takes money, of which her family has precious little.

The documentary opens on Irlan dancing on the rooftop of a building, shanty-dotted hills in the background framed by his body as he elegantly twists, bends and leaps across the surface. According to Mariza, Irlan is one of Brazil’s most promising young dancers. The film bears this out as it follows him to success at stiff competitions in Lausanne, Switzerland and New York City.

Isabela isn’t so lucky. Apart from racial discrimination, she’s also critiqued for her weight, which causes a lot of stress (and to the layman’s eyes is frankly hard to accept). Her family can barely scrape together the funds to get her to the competition in New York, taking on extra jobs and loans. When she doesn’t place in the individual competition, it’s clear that might be the end of her as-yet unlaunched career. Mariza is uncomfortably direct in telling Isabela it’s not worth returning to the competition before she loses weight and gets more training. Isabela thanks her through tears for her honesty.

These highs and lows are gripping because they feel like they’re happening in real time as you watch the documentary (even though the film was shot in 2008, which only calls the attention when people whip out digital cameras rather than smartphones). The film takes on heightened emotion because the stars are still kids and you want them to do well, especially teens with so much talent in light of such difficult life circumstances.

The favelas are a place, interviewees note, where kids are easily drawn into the drug life and gunshots ring out regularly. Serious and soft-spoken, Irlan and Isabela have both avoided this path thanks to their passion for dance. When Irlan sees snow for ostensibly the first time on his trip to Europe, and Isabela first glimpses the lights of the Big Apple, the moments carry extra meaning for who they are and where they’ve come from.

Still, it’s the parents who are the surprise stars of this documentary. Irlan’s dad explains how he initially disapproved of his son’s pastime until he watched him dance; now he’s his biggest supporter and, to the chagrin of the teenager, has Irlan’s name tattooed on his forearm. Isabela’s dad breaks down crying when he confronts the possibility of not being able to provide for his daughter’s dreams.

When Irlan leaves home at the end of the film, we see his parents a little dazed by their empty nest. When they prepare to go out on a date night, they put on make-up and shave in tiny mirrors hung in awkward spots in their home. In another scene at Isabela’s, we momentarily glimpse the director with camera in a mirror. Whether this was intentionally left in the film or unintentionally not edited out, it serves as yet another reminder of the very tight spaces her subjects live in. Finzi appears to have had extensive access to both families and the dance studio, and her camera accompanied the dancers on two international trips.

Mariza could have come off as the bad guy in the film with her blunt advice to Isabela and her luxury apartment in a “nouveau riche” district high-rise with sea views, such a contrast to the favela dwellings. But the documentary doesn’t make that judgement itself, and it shows how much the kids come to rely on and care for their teacher. She revels in their successes and shares suffering in their defeats.

She is also the one who notes that it’s precisely the kids from the favelas who grab every opportunity with determination. A closing scene shows Isabela mentoring another, younger black ballerina, suggesting change may be coming. A follow-up documentary more than a decade later would likely be welcomed by viewers.


This review originally ran on The Alliance of Women Film Journalists.


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