Paul and Millie Cao in 'Walk, Run, Cha-Cha.' Photo courtesy of David Magdael & Associates.
When the Oscars nominations were announced on Jan. 13, there was one title the dance community was looking for — Walk, Run, Cha-Cha. The film made the list for Documentary Short Subject and won the hearts of so many who discovered Paul and Millie Cao's heartfelt story through the movie.
Dance Network spoke with director Laura Nix about how searching for a location for another project led her to the Lai Lai Ballroom and Dance Studio and the love story of Paul and Millie. That fateful moment changed her life through dance.
Dance Network: Did you ever think dance would lead you in such an incredible direction as a filmmaker?
Laura Nix: I danced ballet as a young person. I was very serious about it until I realized I wasn't going to be a professional ballerina and then, I switched to music. It's very much a part of my creative foundation and I think about movement a lot in my filmmaking and I think that it comes from that foundation from being a young dancer.
DN: How did you meet Paul and Millie Cao?
Laura: I walked into the room in the middle of my workday searching locations for another project. 50 Asian people were dancing the tango in the middle of the day. I just thought, What is this beautiful place? I have to learn more. Since I'm not from the community, I knew I'd have to spend some time there to get to know people.
So I started taking dance classes there and I was in their group class that's taught by Maksym Kapitanchuk and Elena Krifuks, who are in the film. I also took private classes with Elena and I was intrigued by what was going on by spending time there.
I found out that the studio was run Eastern-European professional ballroom dancers and they were teaching Latin dance to members of the Chinese community. Through that lens, this is a classic American story because nowhere else could something like this happen. It felt very beautiful to me and a very important story to tell at this moment. This must be the kind of story that's amplified right now because we're a nation of immigrants and this kind of cultural mix could happen no place else.
DN: Were Paul and Millie receptive to having their story told?
Laura: They kept saying to me that there's nothing extraordinary about us. We're just normal people, but working full-time jobs and dancing four-to-five nights a week is extraordinary. I learned more about their background and I realized there was a deeper story to tell.
So I filmed the couple for six years and Concordia Studio heard about the project and they came to me because I was making a feature — and I am still making a feature-length version of the documentary. They asked if I would be willing and interested in making some of this material into a short film for a series they were producing with The New York Times and that's how this particular film came about.
DN: Now the Oscar nomination adds another layer to this story.
Laura: It's going to be part of the story of the feature-length film, of course, but there's so much more to Paul and Millie's story. Both Paul and Millie almost died when they were trying to leave Vietnam as young people under very different circumstances.
Once they arrived, their story about getting here is also very interesting because they did come with nothing. They didn't speak English, they had to completely start over from scratch and that's a very interesting story.
Then there's the story of their ballroom teachers, Maksym Kapitanchuk and Elena Krifuks. Maks is Ukrainian and Elena is from Belarus and their story of arriving in the country and what that's been like is also very interesting. The feature-length version of the film will go into more of those details as well.
DN: What did you learn about Paul and Millie through dance? They can tell their story verbally, but I think movement also tells a story.
Laura: When they first began, Paul was much more excited about the prospect of dancing than Millie was. He was more dedicated to it and threw himself into it. I would miss classes because I made two other films during the time I was taking classes there and filming with them and he would say, "You're not serious because you're not showing up. You're never going to be good." [She laughs.]
Millie is much more relaxed about the whole thing. Even though she's more relaxed about it, she's a better competitor. Paul gets so nervous when he's about to compete and I think it affects his performance and Millie takes it all in stride and she's been doing well. They do Pro-Am competitions in the International-Style Ballroom competitions. Their psyche reveals the way that they prepare for everything and Paul gets more nervous than Millie does.
Director Laura Nix behind the scenes on 'Walk, Run, Cha-Cha.' Photo courtesy of David Magdael & Associates.
DN: The film also takes a look at dancers and age. It's a great testament that anyone can dance.
Laura: I think that's one of the things about the film that I hope is inspiring to people. One of the messages that come out of the film is that bodies in motion are universal and that is not restricted by age. I love watching Paul and Millie do the work that they do. They're not perfect dancers, but I think that's one of the reasons why it's so interesting to watch. It's beautiful and I am hoping that that comes through when you're watching the movie.
DN: How has your relationship with dance changed from making Walk, Run, Cha-Cha?
Laura: When I started filming with these guys, I was motivated to start dancing again. I have taken classes in ballroom, but one of the largest Latin nightclubs in all of Los Angeles is across the street from the ballroom studio in Alhambra, California.
I would be driving home after filming or going to classes there, I would think, Oh, what's that place? So I started taking Salsa classes there and I loved it. I started training in Salsa and Bachata and then I moved to New York to finish another film.
There was a salsa school down the street from where I was living and I started going there. I had group classes, I had private lessons and then I started going social dancing four nights a week. I understood what it meant to be a middle-aged person in dancing. We don't do it because we're great at it, we do it because of how it makes us feel. I do it because it makes me feel like I'm a new person.
The Oscars will air on Sunday, Feb. 9 on ABC.
The Oscars will air on Sunday, Feb. 9 on ABC.
Don't miss Dance Network's latest 'To The Pointe' episode with 'So You Think You Can Dance' finalist, Sophie Pittman: