Alexandra Shiva's How to Dance in Ohio concerns a rite of passage that would be challenging for any young adult -- the spring formal -- but for Marideth, Caroline and Jessica, being on the autism spectrum makes it arguably more anxiety inducing than usual. Taking a predominately observational approach, Shiva follows her three subjects in the months leading up to the dance, through counseling sessions, social skills training and more. We spoke to the New York-based Shiva about what led her to Columbus, Ohio, as well as her collaboration with young women on the spectrum.
NFF: How did you come across the center in Columbus?
Alexandra Shiva: I originally began researching a film about coming of age with autism in New York where I live. I then met a woman at a conference in Newark, NJ who immediately struck me in the way that she was able to talk about her own experience as someone living on the autism spectrum. She was from Columbus, Ohio and she invited me to visit her there and to meet the social skills therapist whom she credited with the remarkable progress she had made in her life. When I met Dr. Amigo and his therapeutic community, I knew that I was meeting a remarkable group of individuals. When I found out that they were about to begin a 3-month preparation for a spring formal, I knew this was the most accessible and relatable way to tell this story.
NFF: Did you have to spend more time with the film's subjects than you normally would in terms of building a rapport given that they are on the spectrum? Were they ever uncomfortable with the idea?
Shiva: Absolutely, it was a very unique and collaborative process with the subjects from the beginning. Dr. Amigo spent about a month processing with everyone the idea of being in the film, and helping them decide what level of participation they were comfortable with: being filmed in therapy, in an individual interview, in their home/school/work lives, or not at all. Then when we first got to Columbus, the clients and their families had many questions, so we held a “town hall” meeting to address their concerns. Then the crew and I spent the first week meeting with 5 clients at a time, describing everything from where we would be in the room during filming, to how close the equipment would be to them. Some people were more curious about the physicality of the filming and wanted to touch the camera and the boom, and others had specific questions about why we wanted to make this film. They shared with us why they wanted to participate, and overwhelmingly, it was that they wanted their particular experience to be known to others, and to feel seen and heard.
NFF: At what point in the filming process did you decide to settle on the three protagonists?
Shiva: Over the course of the three months of filming, we spent time outside of the counseling center with eight individuals, both female and male. But when we got into editing room, it became very clear early on that Marideth (age 16), Caroline (age 19) and Jessica (age 22) were not only extremely compelling, but they were also at three critical transitional stages of coming of age - high school, college and work. We also found these young women and their mothers to be more engaged in the specific rites of passage around a prom than their male peers, though the young men remained very important to us in the narrative of the film.
NFF: Your previous film Stagedoor was set at a theater camp. What is it you respond to in portraying adolescents amid so-called rites of passage?
Shiva: My work often circles back to people searching for belonging, and I think that coming of age stories are particularly ripe for that exploration. Coming of age is complicated for everybody, whether you're going to your first dance, or your first date, or simply trying to make a new friend. The young adults in How to Dance in Ohio struggle deeply with the challenges around social connection, and the film follows them as they persevere, and is a testament to their resilience.