Photo courtesy: WORLD channel.
For a select group of dancers in Queens, New York, the message is marvelously clear: while their physical abilities might differ from others, their love, passion and drive for dance is perfectly normal for them.
The new documentary, ‘Perfectly Normal For Me’, which premieres October 29th at 8 pm on WORLD channel, tells the story of "the vibrancy and inner strength of children and teens with physical disabilities pursuing their interest in performance and movement.”
Director Catherine Tambini — the award-winning filmmaker behind the Emmy nominated documentary, ‘The State Of Arizona’, and the Oscar-nominated film, ‘Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse’ — brings this new real-life story to the small screen.
“Through Tambini’s lens, audiences follow Alexandria, Jake, Veronica, and Caitlin — students at the Dancing Dreams after-school program in Queens, New York — over the course of one year as they prepare for a spring dance recital,” the film’s press release reads. “Though difficulties arise, the students accept each challenge with grace and dignity, offering proof that desire, hard work and the support of a loving community help them gain self-confidence and enjoy working together as a group.”
“Dancing is my first love,” Tambini told Dance Network in an interview. “I started in community dance programs as a child and have always been seduced by music and movement.”
Tambini, who made a name for herself with the aforementioned Academy Award-nominated documentary, ‘Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse’— a film that profiled George Balanchine’s iconic ballerina — explained how directing ‘Perfectly Normal For Me was the ideal alignment of her passions.
“After [‘Elusive Muse’], I began making social issue films,” Tambini explained. “[So,] when the opportunity to direct ‘Perfectly Normal for Me’ came up, it felt like I had come full circle — marrying dance with an important and timely message of inclusion, accessibility, perseverance, and self-acceptance.”
Veronica Siaba and friends. Photo credit: Catherine Tambini.
“I saw an interview with Veronica Siaba, one of the teens in the film, who was at the time probably 12 or 13, and I saw how poised, articulate and wise beyond her years she was, I thought she’d be a great subject for a film,” Tambini said.
When Tambini visited Dancing Dreams — the program that serves as the venue for the dancers in the film — she realized even more, that the story she was seeing play out was an important and relevant one to tell.
“I went to Dancing Dreams and fell in love with all the other children in the program,” Tambini said. “I wanted to share their stories with the world. I wanted everyone to see how beautiful, charming, funny, loving and wonderful these children are.”
Dancing Dreams, which focuses on classes that allow “dancers to experience the joy of dance regardless of their physical ability,” ends each year with an annual celebration performance. The program pairs each dancer with a “Helper” who is enrolled in the Dancing Dreams Leadership Program, and those Helpers, who attend workshops to enhance leadership skills, assist dancers at weekly classes and performances.
“The basic story – children who want to dance paired with teenage volunteer helpers coming together to put on a show – was irresistible,” Tambini said. “The icing was getting to know the amazing families and how they care for and love one another.”
Through both Tambini’s work on ‘Elusive Muse’ and her repertoire of socially driven films, it’s understandable that the director views dance as transformative. The notion that children — even with those living with physical disabilities — will grow monumentally through the power of dance is thoroughly on view throughout the film.
“I’ve seen the faces of children light up as they come into a room to dance,” Tambini said. “I’ve seen them beaming from a stage being recognized and celebrated for their talent and accomplishments when others thought that might never have been possible.”
“Arts programs are so important for children’s development,” Tambini went on. “Dancing rewires your brain. You can shake away all the cares of the day as you dance to music whether it’s in your head or on speakers. Everyone can dance, even if it’s only with their eyes. Dance has the power to bring people together working for a common goal – to put on a show. And these kids prove you can do anything your heart desires.”
Jenifer Ringer, a widely respected former principal dancer with New York City Ballet who had a prolific career with the institution, also makes an appearance in the film while she was still dancing with NYCB. For Tambini, having viewers see Ringer working with and teaching students in the program was an imperative part of the story.
Jenifer Ringer with student CaitlinMcConnell. Photo credit: Hiroko Shono-Cheng.
“As a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, [Jenifer Ringer] was in great demand,” Tambini said. “She took time out of her busy schedule to meet and teach the girls of Dancing Dreams and to share her knowledge, expertise, and love of dance with them. This was one of the highlights of their season."
Tambini admitted, herself, that she learned quite a bit from the experience, too.
“I’ve been transformed through dance and I’ve been transformed by working with these kids,” Tambini said. “I’ve learned self-acceptance from these kids. I’ve learned not to be so hard on myself, to accept what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at.”
“I hope our audiences will be transformed by seeing the humanity and love in these kids,” Tambini continued. “I hope that they will see that everyone has their own normal. No one’s normal is like anyone else’s. In all my films I try to show the humanity in each and every person. Once we begin to see that we’re all human beings, the world will change a little at a time.”
You can watch ‘Perfectly Normal For Me’ October 29th at 8 pm ET on WORLD channel or online at worldchannel.org.
Michael Mahany serves as Dance Network’s New York City correspondent. He also appears nightly in the 10th Anniversary production of Rock Of Ages in New York City. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.