|Gotta Dance: Stepping onto the Silver Screen
--Documentary's Theatrical Release at NYC's Beekman Theatre on Friday--
July 27, 2009
NEW YORK—They had no idea it would get this far.
Betty Walkup, Claire Gaines and Deanna Schwartz all shake their heads slowly, eyes wide, lips pursed as they utter a whispered cacophony of “No.” When the trio responded three years ago to an open call for senior citizens interested in performing as part of the New Jersey Nets entertainment team, none envisioned that they’d one day be enlisted to do a full-day press junket and photo shoot in preparation for the release of a documentary capturing their experience as NETSational Seniors.
But that day arrived Thursday, as the three ladies and filmmaker Dori Berinstein navigated a series of interviews to promote the theatrical release of Gotta Dance, which debuts Friday at the Beekman Theatre in New York. It will then be screened in several New Jersey and California theaters, as well as Portland, Ore. and Scottsdale, Ariz.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would be dancing with the Nets in the IZOD Center,” Gaines said. “It’s just been a unique and sensational experience in every way. It’s been the total realization of a dream. And I certainly never anticipated being in a film and having it be such a wonderful, successful film so far.”
Gotta Dance was first screened at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it was an Audience Award Finalist. From there, it has been shown at festivals around the country, notably winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2009 Palm Beach International Festival and the Best Documentary Award at the 2009 Floating Film Festival.
The film was born of Berinstein’s experiences working in Hollywood and on Broadway as director, producer and writer. She felt a dissonance between the way elders were treated on Broadway, where they were often active participants, revered as sources of knowledge and advice, and in Hollywood, which seemed to discard talents due to the numbers clocking forever forward from birth. For several years, Berinstein was sitting on the idea of creating a film that celebrated ageism through the lens of accomplishing goals thought to be unattainable. And then she saw the blurb that made it possible.
“When I read about the Nets’ seniors auditions in the newspaper, I thought, ‘This could be the movie I’ve always wanted to make!’” Berinstein recalled. “Everything fell into place beautifully and it’s been a dream to work with the Nets from Day One.”
After contacting Barry Baum, the Nets’ vice president of business & entertainment communications, who was responsive to her initial pitch, Berinstein worked with the NBA to gain the necessary approvals to move forward. Once those were in place, her team (led by Editor Adam Zucker and Director of Photography Leo Lawrence) began filming, three weeks before the seniors’ first on-court performance.
The challenge of documentary filmmaking is not knowing exactly what one has – if anything at all – until late in the process. But Berenstein was encouraged by several landmark moments, the first of which came when she realized the Nets’ entertainment staff was holding the NETSational Seniors to the same type of professional standards they had in place for other talent, like the Nets Dancers, Team Hype and Nets Kids. That knowledge proved to Berinstein that they were being taken seriously and their hard work – and ultimate achievement – would provide the groundwork for her film.
The second -- which locked into place that there was a bigger story than “these seniors being fish-out-of-water with this hip-hop routine” -- was noticing the mutual respect that developed between the Seniors and the Nets Dancers and Nets Kids. The groups worked together – two of the Dancers had grandmothers on the senior team – and the younger dancers began to view aging in new ways.
“I think the movie showcases that the Nets really are ‘More Than a Game,’” said Nets entertainment manager Kimberlee Garris, a former Knicks City Dancer. “It’s our slogan, but it’s the truth. We have performers of all ages that come together and put on this show. It makes me proud to see it work, but it’s also really inspiring to me as a former dancer. It makes me want to come back and be out there when I’m 60. It gives hope to me, our Nets Dancers and our Nets Kids that we’ll be dancing forever. And it truly sends a message to follow your dreams at any age, which is something anybody can relate to, whether they like to dance or not.”
That viewpoint has been reinforced at screenings, where audiences often burst into applause during the climactic performance. Walkup, Gaines and Schwartz offer story after story about teenagers telling them, “You got it, girl!” or 20-something males bowing down in Wayne’s World-style “I’m not worthy!” appreciation.
But perhaps no one has emerged from the experience more uplifted than the director herself:
“I’ve got so much I want to do,” Berinstein said. “The list is so long that I don’t have enough years to do everything. And I don’t want to think for a second that I won’t be permitted to do what I want to do when I reach a certain age. (Making Gotta Dance) was a very empowering experience. I know that no one will be able to stop me, because these seniors have led by example, and taught me that age doesn’t matter -- unless you’re a cheese.”