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The First Dance: How to Dance in Ohio

In Alexandra Shiva’s newest documentary, How to Dance in Ohio, she follows a group of teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum as they get ready for their first prom. Everyone in the group attends therapy sessions with the same psychologist, Dr. Emilio Amigo, at Amigo Family Counseling in Columbus, Ohio. As the documentary progresses, it hones in on the lives of three young women—Marideth, Caroline, and Jessica—as they pick out their dresses for the formal, sort their date situation, and anticipate what their first dance will look like. Funny at turns and incredibly moving throughout, How to Dance in Ohio is an intimate look at what it’s like to be an adolescent with autism facing an incredibly charged social moment. And a story about what it means to belong as we grow up. Below, we asked Alexandra a few questions.

A Q&A with Alexandra Shiva

Q

Why did you want to tell this story in particular?

A

I have always been drawn to stories about people searching for belonging in some way. I have a close friend whose daughter is on the autism spectrum (she is now 16). I have known her for most of her life and have often thought over the years what coming of age would look like for her. Would she have friends? Could she ever live independently? How does one measure what a success is for her? It might be going to the store and buying eggs or just saying hello.

I decided I wanted to find a way to tell a coming of age story about young adults on the spectrum in a way that would both feel true and accurate for the people I filmed and also for a larger population—a kind of bridge into another world. I met Dr. Amigo at the end of almost a year of research. He told me that, as part of social skills practice, he was planning to take all his young adult and adult clients to a prom in a nightclub and that they were going to spend 3 months in group therapy preparing for it. I knew that this would be the perfect way to tell this story because the framework was so relatable. A prom or spring formal is such a widely understood rite of passage for many young adults, yet for the population of teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum, it can be mysterious, confusing, and even frightening. The juxtaposition seemed perfect to me. We have all experienced feelings of fear or anxiety at different points in our lives: a first date, making a friend, or a going to a dance. For the subjects in the film, autism magnifies all of these same feelings.

Q

How did you find these three incredible girls?

A

At the counseling center there were different levels of participation. There were a few clients who didn’t want to participate at all, clients who felt comfortable being filmed only in group, those who were willing to be interviewed, and then people who would allow us to go home with them and film them in their daily lives.

During the three months of filming we actually focused on four women and four men. It became clear in the editing room quite early, with editor Toby Shimin and producer Bari Pearlman, that focusing on the stories of three of the women, who were in different stages of coming of age, was the most effective way to tell this story: Marideth, 16, and in high school, Caroline, 19, and in her first year of college, and Jessica, 22, trying to find her way in a job. There was also something that felt incredibly important in telling the girls’ stories because most people associate autism with boys. Partially because the diagnosis rate is 5 to 1. But there are specific issues that face girls on the spectrum that I thought it was important to address. Also, proms are often about the girls with boys as supporting characters so it felt more organic to tell the story this way.

Q

Before you started filming, did you have a sense of exactly what story you wanted to tell? Did it take any unexpected turns? After all, you were documenting the primary rite of passage for American teens.

A

I had a pretty good idea of the story I wanted to tell, although with documentary it always evolves and changes because it is a collaborative process with the subjects. I wanted to show this community and find a way for a viewer to just be with them—to experience life alongside them. I knew the dance was going to be a part of the film but the process of getting there was even more important. There were a few aspects of the filming process that were quite unexpected. One of our subjects, Marideth, was always on the fence about whether or not she really wanted to participate. Marideth is the consummate information gatherer, and before each interview there was a mandatory 45-minute coffee meeting in which she would interview me. After that she would feel comfortable being interviewed or having us come to her home. She was always unpredictable, even in her physical movements. Our DP, Laela Kilbourn, said that anticipating her movements so the camera could track her was one of the hardest things about the job. One of the other things that was incredibly unexpected for me was the degree to which many of the subjects really wanted to connect with other people. I was under the misconception that all people on the autism spectrum would rather not engage with others, that they actually preferred to be alone. I found that quite the opposite was true.

Q

The group’s psychologist, Dr. Emilio Amigo, said something really striking: That as a therapist he struggles with the idea that in pushing people to grow and develop, he’s also opening the door to potential disappointment and conflict. He calls it “the mess of life.” How do you feel like this manifested in the movie?

A

That is one of my favorite moments in the movie. I think it’s so true and something we can all relate to. I think it manifests in the movie continuously. Every interaction for them is a risk. One the most incredible parts of working with this population of people is they say what many of us may think or feel. And it’s that honesty right on the surface that makes the film so compelling, whether you have autism in your life or not. Marideth is asked to the dance and says “thanks but no thanks” to the first person who asks her. Jessica cannot understand that the person she likes is going with someone else. She just keeps saying “but I thought I had a choice” and “but we spoke on the phone last week.” She seems shattered until she realizes that she will still be able to dance with him. It has been very interesting to see how that scene is received by audiences. People always laugh and I think it’s because she is so accurately mirroring on the outside what most of us have felt on the inside. What amazes me is that with all the difficulty they have in trying to understand human connection, we see them work at it and summon incredible strength to understand and forge those connections.

Q

What was the most poignant moment in the film for you?

A

I have a few favorite moments. Most of them are quite subtle, like when Dr. Amigo asks Marideth what kinds of things she can do to take care of herself at the dance and turns to her friend Sarah and says, “will you be there?” I love when Caroline and Jessica’s mothers have a moment alone in the dress shop and when 18 year old Gabe’s father is shaving him as he gets ready the day of the dance. I love when Marideth arrives on “the red carpet” and simply says “hi.” The tremendous amount of work involved for her in that moment is ever so clear.

Q

You’re known for making films about people who are often marginalized in society—how do you find the line of honoring their experience without making their story align with some sort of tidy fairytale or happy ending? How do you navigate that?

A

This was the big question throughout the editing of this movie. How do you stay in the experience of these people and honor them, their struggles, let it be fraught and complicated and still have joy and laughter and the triumphs, whatever those may be? I think it’s allowing the triumph to be Marideth’s “hi,” Caroline dancing in her dress even though she was afraid it might fall down, or Jessica asking Tommy to dance. Hopefully by the time you get to the dance you are so invested in their stories and struggles that you’re able to rejoice in these triumphs but never lose sight of the larger context of their lives. Ultimately I always saw the dance as a framework within which to immerse the viewer.

Q

What’s next?

A

I am just completing a short film—a portrait of an extraordinary woman I met during the process of making this film.

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