“Fancy Dance” Showcases Indigeneity and Queerness in America With Warmth and Intention
In this interview, director Erica Tremblay shares what it meant to work with fellow indigenous actress Lily Gladstone, the significance of playing at Outfest Los Angeles, and how her personal journey informed the depictions of queerness and sex work.
By Kristian Fanene Schmidt
July 11, 2023
Two Indigenous women walk next to each other down a path. Courtesy of Erica Tremblay.
Fancy Dance is a crime thriller with a whole lot of heart. When Tawi, a Native American woman, goes missing from the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation in Oklahoma, her sister Jax (Lily Gladstone) and daughter Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) team up to find her.
Ahead of its Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Festival screening, writer/director Erica Tremblay spoke to the Outfest Blog about what it means to work with fellow indigenous actress Lily Gladstone, the significance of playing at Outfest Los Angeles, and how her personal journey informed the intentionality behind the depictions of queerness and sex work.
OUTFEST: I loved “Fancy Dance” and all the beautiful and thoughtful ways you portrayed queer Native American women. As a queer, Native American woman yourself, how much of your life experiences show up in this film?
ERICA TREMBLAY: I didn’t set out to make a film that was autobiographical in any sense, but certainly as Miciana Alise and I were writing the script together, we were pulling from things about ourselves, our lived experiences.
My birth father’s mother wasn’t super excited about him marrying a Native woman and that reverberated throughout my childhood growing up. This idea of this family, Jax and Roki, having to navigate the world as Native women and having to navigate their white family as Native women is definitely something that I was able to draw from personal experience.
I also worked in strip clubs and was a sex worker for many years so I wanted to have a character like Tawi who worked at a strip club but could also be a really great mom. I also wanted to show that just because she was a sex worker, it didn’t mean that she wasn’t worthy of being found when she went missing.
I worked with so many incredible women who had families, incredible women who had dreams and had goals and had amazing relationships. And I think that the portrayal of sex workers and strippers in general is very one-sided and there’s like one way to be a stripper in television and film, and I wanted to show different aspects of that.
I really wanted to show Sapphire, our dancer in this, to not just be a moment of sexiness, although there is that, but she has her fingers on the pulse of this community and she’s helping Jax actively kind of solve the disappearance of her sister.
And I wanted her to have a meaningful relationship with Jax. I was really interested in portraying a moment of consensual queer sex work where we see Jax go into the strip club and pay for this intimacy from Sapphire. And while Sapphire may yearn for more, and if in other circumstances these two women could probably have a different kind of relationship with each other, this is like what they are allowing themselves and what they can kind of handle with this intimacy.
And so it was just, again, one of those instances where I could lean on my own personal experiences as a woman who’s danced in clubs on how to bring this fantasy into play of having positive, consensual queer sex work, which exists and we never see.
OUTFEST: Lily Gladstone killed it as Jax. I imagine there aren’t many opportunities to work with other queer Native women in the film industry and then you come across a talent like her.
TREMBLAY: I can go back to the moment I saw Lilly’s face and discovered her existence on the planet. I’m a huge Kelly Reichardt fan, and when I watched “Certain Women”, her face came across the screen and I was like “is this person native and is this person queer?”
There was just so much about them that shone through. Lily’s face can tell a magnitude of emotions with just one glance. And I remember being like “I have to work with this person. I have to find a way to this human”.
We worked together on my short film “Little Chief” and it was just such a dream. She’s so talented and so generous and such a great friend, and when I was embarking on something larger from the short film into a feature film, I knew that I wanted to work with Lily again.
And I think just to add to that, one of the things that was top of mind for all of us when we went into making this film is that we wanted Jax’s queerness to not be the source of any specific struggle or the source of any specific trauma and that her being queer was just a part of her, like being native or a part of her, like being a hustler or part of her, like being a loving aunt. It just exists as opposed to being this thing that we’re really taking a magnifying glass to and I think it was kind of freeing in a way to have a queer character whose plot of the film has nothing specifically to do with that.
OUTFEST: One of the themes of “Fancy Dance” is Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women which is quite a heavy issue. But you also have a strong presence of indigenous joy and community and love.
TREMBLAY: Yeah, the first image that I ever saw in my head was an aunt and a niece dancing together at the end of the film. I just knew that we had to find our way through this dark, murky water to a place of realizing love and joy and kinship.
It’s tough because when you look at the films that are out there that deal with this topic, they’re all very heavy. Most of them are very violent. They’re extractive in many ways. A lot of times the themes are around white saviors as opposed to the community who is dealing with the presence of this violence. And so for us it was always about how do we take this thing that’s very real in many indigenous communities around the world and specifically from our experiences in North America and how do we bring humanity to that and how do we bring humanity to a Native community that is consistently and constantly being oppressed by these outer systems, but yet somehow still flourishes and lives and laughs and loves.
I often think about people’s thoughts around reservations and how it’s just a bunch of sad people in trailer parks, you know? And I’m like “well, what do you think happens in those trailer parks?” They get in fights with your mom, they watch their favorite TV shows, they eat macaroni and cheese, they have sex with their boyfriends. There’s life and there’s a beautiful color that exists in my community and in Native communities that I’ve been able to visit and I just think that we were aiming with this film to have moments of beauty and levity.
We wanted the audience to laugh. We wanted Native American audiences to watch this and identify and laugh and see themselves represented with a kind heart. It makes me feel good to know that when people watch this film, they’re able to see those moments and feel love and laughter.
OUTFEST: You had me laughing and crying my ass off when I saw it at the Sundance premiere. Having your film play at such a huge festival, some people might stop there. Why is it important for you to have your film played at festivals like Outfest that aren’t on the same scale.
TREMBLAY: As a producer on the film, there’s the business side of things, and then there’s the side of things that I love connecting with audiences on.
What a dream to premiere at Sundance at Eccles, right? You know, that’s my first feature film. That’s just an incredible experience.And there’s a certain amount of anxiety involved with the premiere and anxiety involved with how people are gonna like the film, accept the film, take the film, react to the film.
As soon as everyone liked the movie, critics and audiences alike, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. I knew that the mechanisms of the business side of things would work themselves out because we’ve made a good movie that people are responding to and then I became more obsessed with like “okay, now I’m ready to go have a conversation with my audience”.
So I think going to festivals like Outfest where you get to really sit with the audience and watch the film with them and have more of a personal conversation around the work is really rewarding for me. I also think that from a business aspect things can be gained.
You make relationships with other filmmakers, you make relationships with other media, and folks that are attending and I am just thrilled and so excited to attend and be screening at Outfest. When I was a struggling filmmaker, many years ago, I lived in West Hollywood and I used to walk up to the DGA theater and watch films at Outfest.
I remember thinking to myself, “man, I really wanna have a movie here someday”. For me, these aren’t small festivals, these aren’t small ticks. I don’t compare the experiences that way. To me, this has been a big dream of mine.
Fancy Dance screens at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival Saturday, July 15 at 7:15pm in DGA 1. You can get tickets here.
Kristian Fanene Schmidt (he/him) is a writer, host, and consultant, contributing to a number of media outlets including HuffPost, BuzzFeed, BET, Rotten Tomatoes, Washington Post and more. He is also the Executive Director of the Pasifika Entertainment Advancement Komiti [PEAK].
Schmidt is also an Outfest Inclusive Press Fellow for the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Learn more about the program here.
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