'Hot to Trot': Film Review

Not so hot.
8/24/2018

Gail Freedman's doc follows participants in a dance competition for same-sex couples.

It may come as a surprise to those who think of the dance world as an unusually gay-friendly zone, but major ballroom dance competitions evidently think of their sport the way many right-wingers think of marriage: It can only be done by a man and a woman. Following a small group of dancers looking to buck that system, Gail Freedman's unfortunately titled Hot to Trot finds likable subjects but has trouble getting us invested in their stories. Though it may attract interest from some competitive dancers once it hits video, only the most sympathetic viewers will recommend it to friends.

The Oakland-based April Follies, the longest-running same-sex dance competition in America, is seen by the film's key subjects as a prelude to the big show: the Gay Games, a long-running event that includes dance among its many fields of competition. Freedman starts tracking these dancers back in 2012, honing in on one male and one female team. Neither couple is romantically involved, though they suggest there's a kind of intimacy here that rivals actual romantic partnership.

Ernesto Palma and Robbie Tristan are the first pair we meet, but we've barely started following their friendly-bickering relationship ("it's like a fucking marriage — without the fucking") before Tristan is forced to leave the team: diagnosed with a brain tumor, he can't afford treatment in America and has to return to his native Hungary. Palma eventually teams up with Nikolai Shpakov, a Kazakhstan-born dancer who until now has only danced with women. Given his natural bossiness, it's an adjustment to dance in a format where "there is no guy's part" and either partner might take the lead. In San Francisco, we meet Emily Coles and Kieren Jameson, where what conflict exists derives from Coles' feeling that nobody around her takes dance as seriously as she does.

We get bits of personal information on all five of these dancers (we hear lots about Coles' diabetes), but biographical material is rather awkwardly interspersed with the dance story, and Freedman's sense of what is interesting and what isn't leaves something to be desired: The doc's opening scene, for instance, shows Palma microwaving a tortilla with cheese and lunch meat, talking as if this lazy-man's quesadilla is an exotic dish known only to his fellow Costa Ricans.

More interesting is how several of our stars moved to the U.S. in part due to homophobia where they were raised. But the film does little to develop this theme — and after telling us at the start that same-sex couples aren't allowed in mainstream contests, it does nothing else to show how (or if) these dancers get along with members of the broader dance community. A couple of scenes with Barbara Zoloth, a founding member of the Bay Area Same-Sex Dance Association, leave us wanting more.

These shortcomings might be less annoying if the bulk of the film featured dazzling dance floor scenes. But if these dancers are exceptionally graceful, Freedman and her photographers fail to capture that talent on film. For the most part, footage of rehearsals and competition is lackluster. Even when we get to the doc's climax at the Gay Games, Freedman distracts from her showiest footage — cranking things to slow motion and dropping the sound out so we can hear again, in voiceover, about Coles' blood sugar.

Production Company: Hot to Trot Productions LLC
Distributor: First Run Features
Director: Gail Freedman
Producer: Gail Freedman
Executive Producers: Elizabeth Watson, Caroleen Feeney
Editor: Dina Potocki
Composer: Allyson Newman

88 minutes