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Seniors Do Hip Hop: "Gotta Dance" at the Tribeca Film Festival

by Tonya Plank
April 27, 2008
various New York City movie theaters.
This year's Tribeca Film Festival included a couple of small independent dance films. "Gotta Dance," a sweet documentary about the first ever senior citizen Hip Hop team, which entertains at half-time during New Jersey Nets home basketball games, was by far the better of the two.

The New Jersey NETSationals, consisting of one man and 11 women all over the age of 60, is the brainchild of Marla Collins, a professional dancer for the Nets, who wanted to give a physical and emotional outlet to her once active but increasingly sedentary 83-year-old grandmother. It is hilarious watching the try-outs and first few practices. You wonder how in the world the team is ever going to be taken seriously. But, amazingly, it is – by the fans, the basketball players, and by us, the audience – not because the members ever nail Hip Hop, but because they subtly teach you not ever to let age stand in the way of fulfilling your dreams, not ever to let society dictate what you can and can't do.

We get brief biographies of each member and we get to know them further the more they interact with each other and struggle to learn Hip Hop. Peggy, a 70-year-old woman who used to be a jitterbugger and is a former Miss Subway, who looks a good 20 years younger, says up front she wanted to be involved as soon as she heard about the auditions, but wasn't sure something for people of "that age" would suit her. Of course, she had to come to terms with the fact that she was "that age," she said laughing. We also get to know Deanna, 64, a legal secretary who's "outed" at her law firm when footage of her tryouts are shown on the nightly news. Betsey / Betty is a hilarious kindergarten teacher who's never before done anything very risqué — like dancing! She adopts a dancer alter ego, whom she names Betty, who ends up being one of the best dancers on the team.

Many of the team members, like Marla's grandmother, danced socially when they were younger, like Joe, 62, who entered the competition on a dare by his sons. Marla and Trixia admit he doesn't have the greatest sense of rhythm, but he's the only man who tried out, and they need a man, so he makes the team. Joe danced Swing in his day, and we see him and his wife having fun swinging in their living room. They're really quite good. Claire, 61, a lifelong student of dance, is a competitive amateur ballroom dancer, and we are taken inside her studio where she rehearses a routine with her teacher and professional competitor. (In the interests of full disclosure, Claire is an acquaintance of mine and she attends my former studio). We also see Janice, 72, a member of a senior tap dancing team, at her tap rehearsals, and meet Fanny, 81, the second oldest member of the team, who used to "do the boogie-woogie" in her younger days.

One of the most poignant parts of the film is when we are taken into Fanny's house. She shows us some of her pictures of when she was young, and very beautiful, with her family, World War II survivors. As she plays piano she talks of hiding in the woods (she is Asian and it's never made clear exactly where she's from) with her family during the Japanese invasion of her country. She speaks of these horribly hard times with laughter and distance and you realize how much she's been through; that she's not just a silly ole geezer looking a bit goofy trying to do a young urban hipster dance; that she was young once too and because of her age has so much knowledge, so many more powerful stories to tell than those contemporary urban hipsters. You begin to realize how our society de-values the wisdom that comes with age, placing greater importance on the attractiveness and sexiness of youth.

That is the real point of the film and I wish we would have seen more of everyone's life, not only Fanny's. We see each team member now, her hobbies, job, and family, but we don't see much of her life story, how she's gotten here and where she came from. Still, it's a lovely film that's very life-affirming and makes you realize what is really important. The filmmaker, Dori Berinstein, gave a short talk afterward, and she said she expects the film to come out soon on DVD. Definitely worth watching.
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