“HOT TO TROT”— Inside the World of Same-Sex Ballroom Dance


Inside the World of Same-Sex Ballroom Dance

Amos Lassen

“Hot to Trot” is a new documentary directed by Gail Freedman that is an immersive character study  and an idiosyncratic attack on bigotry.  We are taken behind the scenes to discover the captivating but little known world of same-sex competitive ballroom dance. This a world where expressions of personal passion become a political statement, and where one false step can destroy hopes and aspirations.

The characters’ back stories frame their struggles and conflicts in life. The film follows charismatic Ernesto Palma who is a former meth addict from Costa Rica and who strives for success and love. Ernesto is now a Manhattan resident and completely obsessed with dancing with the same veracity that once was when he was  addicted to crystal meth.  After just a few months training, his new partner Robbie suddenly got seriously ill and immediately went back to his native Hungary for treatment.  It then took Ernesto some considerable time to persuade Nikolai, a very successful, Russian ballroom dancer to become his new partner as he had only danced with women to date.  

There is gritty and determined Emily Coles, a diabetic who wears an insulin pump 24/7 even while performing. We meet handsome Nikolai Shpakov, a dazzling dance champion, who came out only a few years ago and still yearns for his family back in Moscow to accept him. Finally is introspective Kieren Jameson, whose came out of the strict, conservative environment of a New Zealand military household. “Hot to Trot” follows the dancers over a four-year period and we not only see them dance but we also see their relationships with family, dance partners, life partners  and with themselves.

For these four, dance is a form of personal power and political engagement that shapes their identities while at the same time helps them overcome uniquely personal challenges. They are emblems of LGBTQ politics and being such is who they are.   This is an entertaining film to watch because of the spectacle and grace of competition and it is also an inspiring character study of these competitors, and how they gracefully maneuver through both worlds.

Gail Freedman, the director and producer of “Hot To Trot” gives us an enchanting look at the world of competitive same-sex ballroom dancing.  The four individuals she picked to focus on are not just champions when dancing, they are charming individuals. Emily’s successful dancing partnership with Kieren had resulted in many trophies and awards, but there are problems too. Emily has type I diabetes and has to wear an insulin pump 24/7, and her vital blood sugar levels are all over the place the day of any dance competition.  New Zealand born Kieran was focusing on building her own career which meant that half way through the documentary, she decides to cut back on her dancing, leaving Emily’s rather conservative Russian girlfriend Katerina to step in.

Today there are many same-sex ballroom dancing events held all over the world, but America’s most elite is April Follies held in Oakland, California every spring for the past 16 years.  Over a few very packed days the competition is tough and the atmosphere between all the dancers is very warm and welcoming and filled with genuine friendship and respect. Then there is the competition at the International Gay Games that are held every four years and are the Holy Grail for LGBT dancers (and athletes too).   Freedman’s camera follows her four dancers as they train every minute of the night and day right up to their appearance at the Games.   Ernesto and Nikolai who have such very different backgrounds and temperaments have settled into a comfortable working relationship almost like newly-weds trying to impose their own will on their new partners. They make a very cute couple but never on a romantic level.

The dancing is electrifying and stunning. As LGBT people we are watching something that we can really relate too.