Walk, Run, Cha Cha - an Oscar Nominee!

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An Oscar Nominated Short Documentary: Walk -- Run -- Cha Cha

An Interview with Elena Krifuks & Maksym Kapitanchuk by Maria Kordit

The presence of ballroom dancing in documentaries is rare, with occasional gems such as Mad Hot Ballroom (2005) that reminds everyone the power of partner dancing for self-discovery and community building. A new gem - an Oscar nominated short documentary Walk Run Cha-Cha – shares the story of Paul and Millie Cao, who reunited in California after the Vietnam War. Forty years later, they are rediscovering themselves on the dance floor. The beauty of the film lies in what director Laura Nix expresses so clearly: “Faced with middle age, Paul and Millie chose to reinvent themselves again. After decades of delayed gratification, this time they focused on what gives them joy. Dance opened up a world of self-expression and pleasure for the couple, sparking a transition from responsible professionals to flamboyant performers pursuing their creative dreams. On the face of it, a film about middle-aged people dancing might not seem political. But my decision to tell a story about Paul and Millie’s life in the present, and not solely focus on their past, was intentional. Films about refugees and immigrants are often focused on the point of entry, when the newly arrived are at their most vulnerable. But it’s essential for us to hear stories about what happens next.”

Maria: Maksym and Elena, thank you for meeting so we can learn more about you and your new exciting venture into the Oscars. Can you give me a little background about yourself, individually, and how you two came together in the world of dance?

Elena: I am originally from Belarus and moved California in 1993 with my whole family. I grew up here so I am pretty much a California native! I started dancing when I was 10 years old. At one point I had an ad for a partner search on dancesportinfo, as did Maksym. In 2009 we had a try out which worked out successfully and we have been dancing ever since!

Maksym: As for me, I am originally from Kiev, Ukraine. I moved to America in 2009. I originally came to Florida to perform with the Ukrainian Ballet Company, and like Elena mentioned we both had our ads on dacesportinfo, and we decided to dance together after a successful workout.

Maria: Although you are known in the dance industry, we have not seen you on the competitive floor recently. Have you retired from dancing or do you choose to focus on building your life in the world of dance more in your community and what’s around you versus traveling everywhere from weekend to weekend with little time to grow something that is your own at home?

Elena: I think for us we never officially retired from dancing, but decided to focus on other things that we have been wanting to do for a while. When you compete since you are a child – which I was since the age of 3 or 5  - first in gymnastics then in dance – I felt that I already wanted to try something else. When you compete for so long you do not see anything else, and I wanted to open my mind up to new ideas, new things. I wanted to teach more and it was really hard to accomplish that and practice all in the same day. We decided to take a break from the competitive side, and focus more on Pro-Am and our students which we have a lot of. That allowed us to also focus on our life-long dream – the movie industry. Since I was a kid, I did drama and theater. Maksym also did some commercials and acting in Ukraine. We always put that off to the side, and jumped back into it as soon as we took a break from the competitive side of dancing.

Maria: So interesting. I just took my first acting class. Stanislavsky method. So fascinating how complex it is … so many layers. Maksym you also had similar ambitions? Was dance not the one and only reality? You wanted to purse other elements in the artistic genre as well?

Maksym: Absolutely. Since I was a little kid, dance of course was my passion and the number one thing in my life, but I always also wanted to do be part of movies and be on T.V. Like Elena said, we always put it to the side. Since we stopped competing, we began to pursue our big dreams.

Maria: What was the pivotal moment when you guys just one day woke up – or came to the studio - and said “ok we are going to make a film”.

Maksym: I do not think it ever happened like that. I mean we had a lot of ideas in our head for different projects. What happened is one day – one lady (Laura Nix) came into the studio and was taking group classes with us and some privates classes with Elena – for maybe a year. She then mentioned she’s a film maker and that she would like to do a movie about dancing. We shared with her our ideas and that’s pretty much how it started! I do not think it was anything serious at first, we were just doing it for fun. We were actually shooting this for seven years.

Elena: Yes we started about 6-7 years ago.

Maksym: As we started it this project, it wasn’t just one couple. We included all of our students. All have such different stories … how they immigrated to U.S … what dance means to them…

Maria: When you began this project, were you planning to move forward with this as personal project or did you have an established goal that you wanted this to be recognized outside of the dance industry?

Maksym: I do not think we ever though it was going to get this far. I wouldn’t say we had that goal.

Elena: It wasn’t planned it just kind of worked out. People always do student films, this and that, or movies about themselves. You often see people getting filmed at competitions. What’s your story? Everyone has a story. My initial plan was to have content for our website, our studio and for ourselves. To do this autobiographical documentary, and show on our website for our students. What we figured out is that Laura was actually gathering all of this interesting footage. She didn’t just do it for the couple in the short film, but for our other 12 – 15 couples. We just selected one for this short documentary. We have a longer version with other couples coming out as well. We spoke to Paul and Millie Cao and they gave access to their house, their lifestyle, and everything. We began to pull the focus away from us and ballroom and onto them and their story.

Maksym: So it overall doesn’t involve professional dancers, just students.

Elena: The focus is on regular people that are not in the studio all day, people who go to work daily. Millie goes to work from 5am to 5pm, and then they come to the studio for four hours taking lessons and groups and practicing. That is so different because we are really used to our way, which makes it so interesting to see what the average person’s life is like.

Maria: In your words, can you share what the film is about from your view?

Elena: For this short documentary its about our couple - Paul and Millie Cao - that were separated for 6 years, because Paul could not get a petition for Millie to come here. Once Millie came here their life had to start all over. They were refugees from Vietnam, and had a very tough life there. The film shows how they built their life in the U.S., their struggles, and by the end how they were able to find their own American Dream through dance. It’s not easy to go through such struggles… but in the end there is …hopefully happiness. As with many Americans who started their lives in another country, their story embodies resilience and courage. Love and longing. Separation and reunion. Their ability to transform adversity into beauty.

Maksym: When they met in Vietnam through dance, during the communist regime, dancing parties were forbidden. Dancing here allowed them to rebuild their life.

Maria: How did the process go from this being a personal project to ending up as a nominated short documentary film in the Oscars. Whose idea was it to submit it and go through such a stressful and competitive process?

Elena: The director - Laura Nix – was contacted by the New York Times looking for an immigration piece. She figured - why not have a story piece through dance! There was already footage from so many of our students with each having its own unique stories. She put together this short-focused story from all the footage that was collected over the 6-7 years. NYT bought it with Concordia Studios, and they pitched it along which pushed it further and further. Then it entered festivals and so on.

Maria: What a beautiful trajectory. A personal project combined with a talented student into a moment of coincidental fortune.

Elena: Yes - Laura has had other successful films and this is the first one that made the Oscars! Some of her other films covered topics varying from the environment to Syria. She is a very successful producer, director, and writer, and has had her films even on PBS. Goes to show that sometimes it’s just luck.

Maria: Where can people see this film?

Elena: YouTube, NYT website, last Friday it went nationwide in 300 or so theaters for screenings. Because it’s Oscars week, its required for all films to be shown. (Link to film can be found at the end of this interview)

Maria: What do you hope, knowing you have this opportunity, that on a global scale people will get to learn about social and ballroom? Aside from their touching story, what do you hope a general viewer that is not our world of dance to take away from your film?

Elena: It doesn’t matter who you are, where are you, how old you are, you can dance! Whether you compete or not, you should dance! Its good for you, for your soul. You should not think of any excuse not to dance. Not everyone has to be competitive, but they can be if they want to be. It brings people together.

Maksym: I agree – I really hope that a regular person can understand that dance can change your life. It’s healthy and better than going to the gym. I hope it will inspire people to dance more.

Elena: It’s a whole culture. When Paul and Millie began coming to class, they would come in jeans. Now they come in practice clothes. You see how it changes you as a person and how you hold yourself. You become a whole different person.

Maria: You mentioned you are making a longer movie from all the content. Is there a timeline on when we can expect that?

Maksym: There’s a lot of things yet to be filmed, we hope soon.  

Maria: Is there anything else you want our readers to know about this experience you are going through?

Elena: Yes – the most important thing is for people to understand that this is just your average person. Anyone can share such similar enjoyment.

Maksym: We want people to be inspired by dance, not as something that is strictly competitive, or something aggressive, but see it in a light hearted way - the way we see it. All our students are older than us but treat us as their peers. They never separate us as being different. We always feel love from them, and we have such great gratitude to them, allowing us to share such a community.

Maria: It’s respect. And that is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

Before I learned dancing, I could only use my body to walk, to swim to run. Today I can use my body to reach another level for freedom” – Paul Cao


You can watch the full film Walk Run Cha-Cha here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykefc1w0Jms or here: https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000006430755/walk-run-cha-cha.html

Other content:

Academy capture of nomination moment: https://twitter.com/theacademy/status/1216821489598484480?s=21

NYT Op-Doc recap: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/01/opinion/dance-immigration-vietnam.html

  • Report by:: Maria Kordit

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