I first saw Leading Ladies a little over a year ago, when it screened as part of the 2010 lineup of New York City’s LGBT film festival, Newfest. Enamored with the film, I interviewed one half of its directing team, Erika Randall Beahm (who co-directed the film with her husband, Daniel Beahm) for a piece originally featured in the now disbanded and archived online feminist collective, Elevate Difference (formerly Feminist Review).* Leading Ladies continues its festival circuit, appearing next at the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival on September 9th, and is now available on DVD.
It may seem quite an impossibility, but the film Leading Ladies is, simply put, a quietly revolutionary dance musical. While most dance musicals (think Dirty Dancing, Save the Last Dance) center on the boy-meets-girl heterosexual love match, Leading Ladies is a beautifully wrought girl-meets-girl story. It is simultaneously a dance musical, coming-of-age story, and coming-out narrative. The power of the film comes from its ability to maintain the generic conventions of the story while completely rejecting the hetero-normativity that is typically the narrative thrust of the genre. What’s perhaps even more amazing is that Leading Ladies succeeds at thwarting convention within a conventional structure while simultaneously being a whole lot of damn fun. Lesser films would sink under such weight.
Helmed by first-time directors Erika Randall Beahm and Daniel Beahm, this joyous film tells the story of the Campari women. The matriarch of the family is ballroom-dancing stage mom Sheri, played by Latin and Ballroom Champion Melanie LaPatin. Sheri has two daughters: like-minded drama queen and dancing champion Tasi (Shannon Lea Smith), and Toni (Laurel Vail), Tasi’s practice partner and the wallflower of the family. The film centers on Toni’s relationships, particularly with the emotionally volatile Tasi, and an unexpected romantic attachment to Mona (Nicole Dionne), a bubbly and outgoing woman Toni meets at a dance club. While LaPatin’s acting is a bit stiff, Smith’s neurotic and self-obsessed Tasi is played to high-pitched perfection. Vail might be the real star of this film, however, as she says more with her eyes than many actors can express with a word. She artfully plays the Ugly Duckling, the quiet witness to familial squabbles and the glue that keeps the Camparis together.
Leading Ladies has an ebb-and-flow, alternating between slow and quietly stirring scenes and vibrant, fast-paced dance numbers (most notably a hysterical and boisterous number set in a grocery store). The heart of this film beats loudly and quickly, and it leaves the viewer invigorated and deeply moved. To learn more about her hopes for the film, its generative process, and the ideological concerns that lead to its creation, I recently spoke with co-director Erika Randall Beahm.
Beahm co-wrote the film with Jennifer Bechtel, a friend and LGBT youth advocate in Champaign, Illinois, and Bechtel was struggling to find mainstream films that spoke to the young gay community. As Bechtel and Beahm perceived it, most gay and lesbian cinema tends towards violence or explicitness, while mainstream cinema features gay characters as “the sidekick.” Beahm and Bechtel thus sought to create a “family-centered gay and lesbian film for the mainstream market.” Their hope is that Leading Ladies provides gay youth with a positive portrayal of gay romantic love and thus “open a dialogue within themselves” and perhaps between gay youth and their families.
The film eschews aggressive and explicit representations of gay love for a romantic and “joyful falling in love which… straight kids get to experience in movies all the time.” Indeed, Leading Ladies treats its same-sex couple as any movie musicals’ heterosexual pairing: they meet, they dance, they fall in love. The romance is beautifully articulated through an artful juxtaposition of two dance sequences. Toni and Mona’s meeting is shot like a typical dance movie sequence—bright lights, loud music, and overhead shots looking down on the dancers. This film could be Dirty Dancing, if it weren’t for the same-sex couples dancing on stage and in the audience. Indeed, this is the goal of the film: to illustrate that dance (and by extension, romance and love) is the same for same-sex couples as it is for heterosexual partners. Toni leads Mona through a raucous, enthusiastic dance, and as convention dictates, the two find love while dancing. In a beautiful inversion of this sequence, we next find Toni in Mona’s lush apartment, where the more romantically experienced Mona takes the lead in the dance of romance. The lovers’ embrace is gorgeously shot in sensual blush tones and shadow.
For choreographer and dancer Beahm and youth musical programmer Bechtel, dance served as an obvious choice of backdrop for the love story. Beahm choreographed the film’s dances with Melanie LaPatin and Benji Schwimmer, the former So You Think You Can Dance! winner who also plays Toni’s best friend in the film. For Beahm, dance has an inherently transformative power: “There’s this kind of kinesthesia with dance that gets people to literally be moved on a physical level, and I believe also on an emotional and intellectual level.” The love scene between Mona and Toni, for example, is highly choreographed to match the non-diegetic music; Beahm suggests that this emphasis on “energy shifts… and the musicality” of the scene helps the spectator “lose sight of this being a gendered duet, and it just becomes two people moving together, falling in love.”
By emphasizing the movement and musicality of the scene, then, Beahm hopes to ease the fear of spectators who are uncomfortable with same-sex coupling and perhaps open a space for internal dialogue within the spectator: “For people who might have a hard time seeing two women… make out, it becomes this kind of transference of two bodies going through these really emotional and tender but also choreographed spaces, and so gender becomes less important.” By shifting the spectator’s focus from gender distinction to the movement of the body the film illustrates how little gender matters and how love—like dance—is a universal language. Thus the film utilizes dance to open up a space for shifting “people out of the fear they may feel if they’re watching from an outside perspective.”
Though the idea of dance as a catalyst to ideological and personal transformation may seem unusual, Beahm is quick to point out that dance has often added a “queer element” to the movie musical. In West Side Story, for example, the spectator sees groups of men “snapping and skipping” and yet the dance isn’t “sexualized, it’s charged and it’s activated.” Dancing is particularly subversive in moments of unison dancing, she suggests, when members of both sexes dance the same movements, suggesting a unity of the sexes and the democratization of the body. Leading Ladies takes this democratization one step further, rejecting the hetero-normative ballroom dance structure of male lead and female follow and replacing it with same-sex couplings. In doing so, Beahm simultaneously feeds off of the democratizing nature of dance while rejecting the rules of a dance form that reinforces gendered performance.
It is the inherent queerness in dance that Beahm finds so appealing and in tune with her views on feminism. For her, dance and feminism are “compatible” because they are both “hard to pin down” terms; their “slipperiness” as terms allows them to create spaces for dialogue and questioning. She likes her feminism to work “from the inside out,” enjoying the notion of becoming part of a system, and breaking it down from within. This is why her personal mantra is the cheeky suggestion to “wear pearls to the country club and then talk dirty.” Ultimately, Leading Ladies represents a filmic expression of this mantra—by placing non-conventional characters within a conventional generic structure, the film wears its pearls but then lets out a glorious, enthusiastic expletive as it sits down to dinner. Swearing has never been so much fun.
* My thanks to the editorial collective, particularly Mandy Van Deven, for allowing me to re-post this review, and for providing a space for constructive and instructive discussions of difference.