Perhaps because I have always loved dance movies, ever since I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time when I was thirteen years old, and perhaps because I will never by any stretch of the imagination be a dancer myself, I felt inexorably compelled to watch Only When I Dance, a film about two Brazilian teenagers from the slums of Rio trying to make it as professional classical ballet dancers and their struggles, physical, emotional and financial, to get themselves noticed.
But there are also racial struggles at work here. Isabela, a black ballerina, is told by her dance teacher that she will never be accepted into a Brazilian dance company because of the colour of her skin. But, her teacher assures her, there is a place waiting for her in a foreign company, once she has lost weight. Isabela never makes it and we never know what happens to her once she loses out on a place in the finals of the American Youth Grand Prix in New York, after her family have spent nearly a year saving $2000 for her trip. Bitter disappointment is not even the beginning of it.
Irlan, on the other hand, has hope. We watch him stride, or leap, from strength to strength, winning a scholarship at the Grand Prix in Lausanne to joining the American Ballet Theater Company. Lausanne is his first trip to Europe, and how refreshing to see Europe from the perspective of someone who has never visited the West, but then, how lonely. And how lonely he must feel when he leaves his native Rio for the last time, leaving his parents behind, to train in New York.
Irlan and Isabella remind us that with talent and a loving family, hardships can be overcome to follow one’s dream. The support they receive is incredible and one can only wonder whether in Western countries there is so much community support surrounding the creative arts. It is refreshing to see a perspective from a non-Western country supporting something other than finance and business for its young people.
The documentary itself is uncomplicated yet moving. Carefully-chosen interviews alongside emotive moments make for a heart-wrenching experience. As Irlan’s mother says as she says goodbye to him for the last time at the airport in Rio, “it is painful, but it is a pain which comes from joy”. Capturing empathy on film is something I think is particularly difficult and has been particularly well-managed in this film.