“How to Dance in Ohio” – Review
There’s a story I was told recently about a boy with autism. One summer, his mother took him to the community pool every day, and every day people would avoid him or stop and stare. The mother worried that this would be his life, playing alone at the opposite end of the pool, suffering the gaping of strangers. One day, towards the end of the summer, a girl about eight years old tried to talk to the boy but got silence in return. She marched up to the mother and asked, “Does he have autism?”
The mother replied, “Yes, he does.” With that the girl turned on her heel, returned to the boy and changed her dialogue to make it much more direct. She said, “Get on the float, and I’ll pull you. I’ll throw the ball, and you’ll catch it.” And for 20 blissful minutes, the mother saw her baby boy laughing and playing with another child for the first time all summer. Joyful, hopeful tears ensued.
It is with this story in mind that I watched the documentary “How to Dance in Ohio,” a portrait of young adults with autism preparing for a spring formal dance. (Full disclosure, it was produced by my dear friend Bari Pearlman. ) Well-deserved praise has followed the film since its premiere at Sundance this year, and now it is widely available on HBO.
The genius of the film is its universality. Dr. Emilio Amigo is a clinical psychologist who runs a social skills program in Columbus, Ohio for young people on the autism spectrum. One goal of the program is for the students to attend a formal dance, but along the way, they have to learn how to make small talk, pick out formal clothes, to dance, and find a date. While attending a formal dance is social milestone, it can also be an anxiety-inducing minefield, whether you’re on the spectrum on not. The challenge specific to this group of young people is illustrated profoundly when one young man asks, “How will I know if I want to talk with somebody?”
Following these young people as they navigate the event points out collective feelings that we all share. Who hasn’t been misunderstood at work, or wanted a boyfriend or girlfriend, or been nervous before their first dance? This film takes the “other” out of autism.
It was important for the filmmakers to have the students speak for themselves to explain their hopes and fears in their own words. We viewers can take a lesson from the little girl at the pool by finding a bridge with those who may not communicate in the same way as some of us do, but who feel just as deeply.