Anyone who has ever participated in dance should appreciate Olivia Peniston Bird’s debut feature Graceful Girls. On the contrary, if exaggerated smiles, sequins, and kids slathered in make-up is your idea of hell, you’d best look elsewhere for your cinema fix.
Bird’s documentary explores the world of calisthenics, and offers a fly on the wall look at the Regent Calisthenics dance school. Headed by Diane Synnott and her daughter Brooke Synnott, the film focuses primarily on the adult characters, with a deft balance of light and shade. The title refers to the elite solo competition in which young women vie for the ultimate prize: the title of Most Graceful Girl. Want to puke yet? Wait till you hear the backing tracks. But the film as a whole isn’t the unbearable experience some might think.
Twenty-six year old school teacher Brianna Lee is vying for Most Graceful Girl for the very last time. After coming runner up time and time again, this is it. Do or die. Calisthenics is brutal, man. In recalling her past competitions she explains that she was announced the winner in a previous year, but was stripped of her title two days later when a flaw in the scoring was revealed. The accompanying musical score gets dark as hell at this point, and you have to feel for the poor girl. Will she finally get it this year? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE!
As we follow Brianna’s preparations we are introduced to calisthenics legend, Diane Synnott, a.k.a. Most Graceful Girl 1967, who took over Regent from her mother many moons ago. After closing the school for ten years during 1997-2007, she reopened it for a new generation with her own daughter, Brooke (a.k.a. Most Graceful Girl 2001). Diane seems relatively mild-mannered initially, but we gradually discover she’s a hard-arse who won’t tolerate anything less than a 100% effort by her dancers. She’s preparing to hand the reigns over to Brooke who juggles teaching and dancing at Regent, and performing in professional Australian musical theatre productions. Their relationship comes off as strained in parts, but it’s no wonder why. The two of them are prepping their students for competition, and what they can achieve in a short space of time is nothing short of remarkable.
For some reason I had always thought calisthenics just involved swaying around with a ribbon, but this doco opened my eyes to the impressive feats these dancers perform. Described as a dance style unique to Australia involving a combination of ballet, gymnastics, and rhythmic dancing, these dancers made me feel all the more worse about my inability to even touch my own toes. Their flexibility is jaw-dropping, and their formidable synchronisation skills put even The Australian Ballet to shame. The variety within the one dance form is considerable – the school competes in Figure March, Club Swinging, Rod Exercise, Aesthetics, Rhythmical, Song and Dance, and Revue categories, with students required to perfect numerous routines. The costumes are also spectacular, with Diane creating the first costume for every routine, with parent helpers assisting with the rest. The mums work hard sewing sequins left, right and centre, and it’s a relief to see they don’t appear to be your typical unbearable stage parents.
While there are plenty of uplifting and entertaining moments (the montage of the younger students’ solos is golden), there is an underlying darkness that so often accompanies dance documentaries. Although this time, it’s more to do with the teachers and their emotional anguish than the dancers’ physical hardships. At one point when Diane is discussing the stress of her job she is asked why she does it. She doesn’t know. She laughs incredulously at the question as though she’s never even thought about it. She’s also asked if she ever takes a holiday, to which she responds she’s never taken a week off in 45 years. And she’s dealing with KIDS. Give her a medal of bravery.
Though the subjects of the film are clearly passionate about calisthenics, they do also acknowledge its flaws. They speak about the comparisons with beauty pageants in regards to the younger students, who truly do look like they’re straight out of Toddlers and Tiaras. They acknowledge the problematic nature of the adherence to competition beauty norms, with kids dolled up in make-up, drenched in fake tan, with ringlets piled on top of their heads. However, they also stress that while it doesn’t send a great message to young girls about the value of beauty, there is also a great emphasis on their artistic abilities. There’s no doubt these kids run rings around pageant kids.
It would be very easy to mock this film – the Aesthetics routine consists of the dancers pretending to be deer, and the Graceful Girls look like they’re channelling Disney princesses in their exaggerated smiles and movements – but it’s clear that everyone involved is busting a gut to reach excellence. It’s fun to laugh at a world outside our own, but you’ll probably find yourself cheering for these girls just the same.
Graceful Girls is in cinemas from 17th September through Thirdrow Films.