Benjamin Ryan Nathan – I Can Dance!

Hundreds of kids on a stage, twirling, creating swirls of color.  Now in unison, now apart, now a soloist as the crowd oohs and aahhs.  Finally they bow to a standing ovation and a great feeling of accomplishment rushes through each of them… I Can Dance!

This is the name of Benjamin Ryan Nathan’s film about how learning to dance can transform children’s lives.  It will follow four children through their fourth grade year at a New York City Public School while they learn how to dance under the tutelage of National Dance Institute (NDI).

Says Ben about this journey, “these are the experiences that, as a child, change a person’s life.  And that’s what we need.  We just need kids to have these life-changing experiences to give them the ‘oomph’ to create the lives that they want, the world that we all want.  That’s the way it happens.”

And Ben should know, having been one of those kids.

At nine years old, Ben was a shy, skinny kid who was made fun of a lot in school.  The last thing he wanted to do was dance, because he thought it meant wearing tights or a tutu that would get him made fun of even more.  But his teacher cajoled him down to the auditorium, where all the kids were already dancing.

“I looked over and I saw the fattest kid in the class and he was dancing.  And I said ‘if he can dance, I can dance.’  So I gave it a shot and at the end of that year I was dancing on a stage with 1,000 other kids in unison at Madison Square Garden. So that experience just clicked for me and shifted the way that I saw life.”

Over the next six years, Ben kept dancing.  He even began choreographing dances for National Dance Institute.  When he filmed his choreography to critique his work, he began thinking “okay, I can move the dancers on the stage… but now with the camera I can move the stage on the dancers!”

Suddenly, things clicked for Ben: the best way to self-express was through film.  He went on to study Philosophy & Psychology in Filmmaking at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, all the while teaching dance.

Fast forward to college graduation.  Ben accepted a job with NDI teaching dance in a school in New Mexico.  Arriving at his first day of work, the only warning he was given that one of the kids had cerebral palsy was that “one of the kids can’t use his arms very well.”

But the principles Ben learned through NDI prescribed that he treat this child just like all the others.  To encourage him to use his arms just like all the other kids.  In fact, Ben discovered that this child had an incredible sense of rhythm, so Ben had him stand in front of the class and demonstrate the steps, helping him gain confidence.  Over the course of the year, little by little, the boy’s arms started to move.  More, and more, the power of dance worked its magic, and by the end of the year the boy was dancing with his arms.  Ben smiled, saying “his mom didn’t think it was possible.  He didn’t think it was possible.  The doctors didn’t think it was possible.  But dance made it possible.”

That’s when Ben knew he had to tell the story of National Dance Institute and the potential that dance has to transform kids’ lives.  He knew he wanted to do it in New York, his home, and where he had undergone the same experience.  So in 2008, Ben came back to New York to make the film.

His first step was to convince National Dance Institute that he should be the one to tell the story.  It was an easy sell, given his background and relationship with NDI.  The founder, Jacques d’Amboise, one of the most famous ballet dancers of all time, placed his trust in Ben and will also be featured throughout the film.

So how do you go about making your own feature-length film from scratch?

Ben’s first step was to write a treatment for the film.  Answering questions like: What does the whole film look like?  Why are you shooting?  How will I pay for this?  He created a range of explanatory documents, from a one page paragraph to a full PowerPoint.

And then there was creating the trailer.  Imagine distilling a year-long life experience into just 150 seconds, and those 150 seconds need to be the emotional hook for your entire project.  They are what draws in your viewer, what gets your project rolling.

Throughout this process, Ben was forming his team.  One partner was his former thesis advisor from college.  The others he met by networking and sharing his idea with as many people as possible. “It’s been piece by piece putting together a team.  It’s like playing Jenga.  You need the right pieces or the whole thing will fall apart.”

So far his team has been amazing.  In fact, in the beginning, whenever Ben mentioned his idea, people would say “oh, like that movie Mad Hot Ballroom!”  At first Ben tried to distance himself from the concept… “well, you know… it’s similar, but in my movie…”  Then he realized that Mad Hot Ballroom wasn’t his competition. After all it was a different story but it was also amazingly successful.  Why not bring the creator of Mad Hot Ballroom onto his team?

Ben found her e-mail address online, and she wrote him back almost immediately, loving the idea for I Can Dance!  Now she’s an official industry advisor on the project.  It’s that kind of initiative that makes idea-makers like Ben a special breed.

But it’s not all easy.  Sometimes it takes a couple of years to get to where you need to be in order to fully commit to the project.  Every year since 2008 Ben has wanted to start filming, but he never felt comfortable beginning the project without having all of the funding.  He and his team tried a variety of options to get the funding, but nothing panned out.

This year, Ben put his foot down.  “When I stopped giving the power away to other factors and other people and took responsibility myself and said okay, clearly I wasn’t playing the game of, ‘it’s more important to make this movie than anything else,’… it became much more easy to move forward with it and take responsibility for whatever happens.  I have an incredible team but I’m still the person spearheading this.  If I’m not 100% committed to this, if I’m not living and breathing this project, it’s not going to happen.”

Before, Ben had been relying on having the entire budget in the bank before starting the film.  Now, having broadened his perspective, and launched his own production company, Footage Films, he’s content to have partial funding for the film, raised through his Indiegogo Campaign, as well as private grants, and is confident that he can raise additional funds when the time comes. 

The shooting will be a full-time daily commitment.  The I Can Dance! team will be filming in four public elementary schools, to capture the school-life of NDI dancers.  On top of that, the four kids featured in the film will be given their own cameras, to film at home throughout the year.  They will be given weekly assignments, such as to teach their grandma a dance move… and have grandma teach them a dance move from when she was young.

Speaking of grandmas, Ben recalled a great story that I thought captures the epitome of big thinking.  Visiting his grandma one day, and telling her his funding challenges, she said “you know who should fund this film, Michael Bloomberg.”  At first, Ben laughed her off, but the idea crept back into his mind months later.  He called the Mayor’s office because, as he said “there’s no point in being intimidated because they’re just people.  They just have a different job than you.”

Guess who is now endorsing the film, and will even be making an appearance at the year-end show?  The truth is, you never know until you ask…

And right now, Ben is asking for your help.  This film is his passion, it will represent why his life is the way it is.  Help him, make it happen here. Only 24 hours to go!!

“I want every family with a dancing child to donate to this film, so they each can contribute to sharing this experience with the world.  That’s what it’s about – it’s a community-building piece.  It’s a life affirming story of joy, and struggle, and dance, and sweat, and family.”

Become a part of the family.  And in case it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, but have never tried… I’m confident that you can dance!


Ben’s Tips for Aspiring Filmmakers and Entrepreneurs

  • Spend the time to find your vision.
  • Ask questions of people who have more expertise than you and also form a relationship with them.  It’s not just a one way street: you want to give something to the relationship as well.
  • Share your vision with others.  Sharing it makes it more real for you, and also makes you accountable for your vision.
  • Be willing to take risks.
  • It’s not an actualized dream if it’s in your head.  Get out of your head and start making things happen.
  • Even as you keep your eye on the goal, focus on the process.  The most important part of your story, is the journey.
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