VAIL — As one sister gets pregnant and the other comes out of the closet and chooses a dance partner of the same sex, the family must hustle to maintain their status quo in ballroom competition. It is a story fit for Hollywood, but one that hadn’t been told before producers Erika and Daniel Beahm brought it to life with their feature film “Leading Ladies.”
The Vail International Dance Festival and the Vail Symposium will present the Beahms to show portions of their feature film and discuss how they used dance as a driver to produce one the first PG-13 LGBT films in America. As the camera follows the life of the fictional Campari sisters, the film features stunning choreography, original music and refreshingly innovative story line.
The event is slated for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Antlers at Vail. Before the event, we caught up with one of the producers, Erika Randall Beahm, to talk about how the film came about and some of the challenges they faced in creating the finished product.
Vail Daily: What initially led you ballroom dance as the subject of your film?
Erika Randall Beahm: Immediately upon meeting my writing partner, Jennifer Bechtel, on her birthday in the toy boutique she founded in Champaign, Ill, Jennifer asked the strangest question, “What do you know about gay and lesbian ballroom dance?” I replied that I knew little about ballroom, but a lot about swing — as I used to do some in Seattle and have been a dancer my whole life — and she said, “Do you want to write a film about it?” And so we did. We were both saddened by the paucity of GLBTQ PG-13 films available in the world (there were none at the time we released “Leading Ladies”), and felt that making one that used dance as the vehicle for change would both entertain and inspire. If folks aren’t able to understand difference by walking in someone’s shoes, perhaps they could if they danced in them! Thus, same-sex pairings in ballroom dance became a way to both question and normalize who gets paired with whom.
VD: How did the idea of the gay sister choosing a same sex partner come about?
EB: “Leading Ladies,” written in lavenders and Lindy Hops, is a love letter to queer visibility. The film riffs off, rewrites and represents effective storylines/elements from a myriad of dance movies. Using those clichés for good and not evil, “Hollywoodizing” in order to normalize, we didn’t set out to re-invent the typical dance-movie narrative wheel, but rode on it to further our metanarrative: lead and follow does not always mean man and woman — and if it does, it does not necessarily mean man and woman, in that order.
The story of “Leading Ladies” also leans on the autobiographical architecture of my past, though no character is exactly any one person. At the age the Campari sisters are in the film, I told my mother I had a girlfriend and my sister told my mother she was pregnant. I can only say that my mom’s reaction in real life was far more supportive than Sheri’s, the mother in “Leading Ladies.”
VD: How was it to work as a husband-wife duo in putting the film together?
EB: We are happiest as a couple when we are making art. Daniel plays a bit of the bad cop, and I the good cop, which is a bit of type casting. He is in charge of all things technical while I worked with the dancers and actors. Often he would be off transforming a warehouse space into Mona’s apartment while I was busy choreographing the Grocery Store Musical. He is the budgeter of money while I am happy asking the person on the plane next to me to invest. We agree on almost all things aesthetic — that color is crucial to tone and character, that the art of a shot is captured in the choreography of light and time, that the edit must be musical and dancerly in its push. It is through our love of art that we fall in love over and over. When our married life gets less sexy we say to each other, “We need to get back to work!”
VD: How did you capture and challenge the etiquette of ballroom dance on film?
EB: We were incredibly fortunate to have ballroom masters Melanie Lapatin and Benji Schwimmer on set daily to “keep us on our toes” with regards to authenticity and accuracy with ballroom dance. They were also great counsel when it came to the places we wanted to push back against the form. Some same-sex ballroom competitions had begun to spring up at the time of “Leading Ladies,” like the Gay Games in Chicago, where same-sex pairings compete and are quite astounding. In one of the films later scenes, we use the notion of the “by-laws” and the judges panel as stand-in for the Bible and all the ways it is read and questioned. “Judge not that ye be not judged,” is one of my favorite lines ever written, Matthew 7 nailed that one.
VD: Has there been any pushback from the dance community about a film that features a same-sex dance couple?
EB: There has been only love — our tagline “Let Love Lead” really inspired us, and it has. I think because we paired such world champions as Benji Schwimmer and Jordan Frisbee—who had competed against each other since they were 8 but never danced together—we instilled a sense of authority and respect within the fiber of the film. So even though we were breaking rules, we were breaking them with authority and grace. The dance community was eager to see these two powerhouses together and no one was disappointed with what they saw.
VD:Given the quickly evolving gay culture in America, how do you feel the film resonates with what is going on politically in the United States?
EB: We feel fortunate to have been on the cutting-edge with regards to film, dance, and gay rights—and to have accomplished something so potent through a “little indie dance comedy.” Before LL, there were no PG-13 GLBTQ films for young people to watch on first dates or with their parents. There were no same-sex pairings in popular representations of ballroom dance, and as exciting as it was to do something “new,” we feel relieved that life and art are back in step with one another as we move forward as a country to embrace love in all of its forms.
In the film, as we near our big finish with Toni and Mona set to compete, they are “Couple # 11,” that number an equal sign turned on its side. With dance as the ultimate equalizer, Leading Ladies leads the audience to root for the “Typical Hollywood Ending,” even though our protagonists are two women. Through the film’s battle cry, “Let Love Lead,” we hope to kick-ball- change the world one step at a time.
VD: How does choreographing a dance scene for film compare to choreographing a dance on stage or for performance?
EB: I much prefer making dance when I know that the material will be pressed through the choreographic process of the camera and then the edit—for me it is a far more faceted and collaborative endeavor and it shakes up my proscenium sensibilities in ways that inspire me to no end. Angles are critical, as well as negative space and detail—how we are looking as well as what we are looking at becomes part of the choreography of the camera that we adore. The richness of making dance come to life in 2-D is an exciting challenge, one that does not erase the necessity of the 3 dimensional body, but relies on it within its attempt to recreate the living, breathing form.
VD: How was it for you and Daniel to watch the film debut and be enjoyed after all the work that went into it?
EB: Daniel can hardly watch the film, after spending so many hundreds of hours in the editing room and with color correction! If everything with the projection or the sound is not going perfectly, he often has to leave. I, on the other hand, often watch the film with my eyes closed, listening to the sounds of laughter and sniffles as they come from the audience throughout the film. There is one scene I always have to watch and will never tire of, that is the scene when Toni and Mona meet on the dance floor. It, to me, is the loveliest thing and I can’t believe I had any part in making something so magical. Though we are often very critical of ourselves, it is astounding to think we accomplished so much with so little, especially as first time filmmakers—and we can’t wait to do the whole crazy thing again!!