'Fancy Dance' Is Filmmaker Erica Tremblay’s Love Letter to Indigenous Women


Major spoilers for Fancy Dance ahead:

In Fancy Dance, a new film from writer-director Erica Tremblay, Lily Gladstone stars as Jax, a down-on-her-luck hustler living on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation, trying to make ends while raising her teenage niece, Roki. At the same time, she’s searching for her sister and Roki’s mother, Tawi, who’s been missing for weeks. Increasingly impossible situations stack up on top of the already difficult circumstances Jax lives in—some of them her own doing, but most a result of a brutal and uncaring system (the FBI is uninterested in pursuing Tawi’s case, for instance, while Roki is abruptly removed from Jax’s home by a painfully impersonal CPS worker). But Fancy Dance isn’t “trauma porn,” says Tremblay. Rather, it’s a love story in the aftermath of loss—one which Gladstone recently called the “greatest love story that I’ve ever told in my career.”

“It’s a look into a world that we definitely need to see more of,” Gladstone tells W. The Blackfeet and Nimíipuu actress—who made history last year as the first Native American to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress and to be nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon—reviewed early drafts of the Fancy Dance script and shaped the character of Jax from the start. “I’m so pleased that we did our film justice and brought it to life the way it wanted to be,” she adds.

Tremblay began writing Fancy Dance in 2019 after spending two years documenting MMIW survivor stories and creating public service announcements for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC). In fact, Jax is named after Jacqueline “Jax” Agtuca, a policy and legal consultant with whom Tremblay worked closely during that time. A queer Indigenous woman herself, Tremblay also incorporated aspects of her time dancing at strip clubs to pay her way through college and supplement her income as she was breaking into the film industry. “I was inspired by the women I met in these communities who were just like the women in my own community—doing everything they could to keep their families safe and their cultures intact,” she says.

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in Fancy Dance

Courtesy of Apple

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In Fancy Dance, while law enforcement puts meager effort into investigating Tawi’s disappearance, Jax takes it upon herself to conduct her own search, relying on the Seneca-Cayuga community’s whisper network for information. She follows even the thinnest of leads into precarious situations, like dealing drugs to oil workers in a bid for intel that nearly costs her life. Eventually, Jax and her tribal police officer brother, JJ (Ryan Begay), locate Tawi’s remains in a nearby lake—a tragic conclusion to a frustrating saga.

“Unfortunately, this is just the lived experience of Native people. We can’t scroll through social media for one day without seeing a poster of a missing relative,” says Tremblay, who also worked on Indigenous-centered hits like Reservation Dogs and Dark Winds. As a Native woman myself, this aspect of the film resonated deeply with me. Indeed, Indigenous women face the highest rates of rape and sexual assault in the country and murder rates up to 10 times the national average. We experience rampant discrimination in the workplace, in healthcare settings, and in the world at large. Even with the Indian Child Welfare Act, we are four times more likely to have our children removed from our homes and placed in foster care than our white counterparts—as Jax experiences in the film.

But Indigenous women are more than just statistics, and Fancy Dance is also a story of resilience, strength, and multidimensionality—including a wry, dark humor that defies expectations. When 13-year-old Roki (played by dazzling newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olson) gets her first period, the occasion is marked with celebration and ceremony instead of the shame typically tied to this rite of passage. When Jax visits her love interest, a strip club dancer portrayed as an empowered woman rather than a fetishized victim, the pair’s interactions are loving and consensual. And when Jax and Roki reunite at the powwow that concludes the movie, they dance together joyfully despite all of the fear, loss, and uncertainty surrounding them.

“Erica always says that Fancy Dance is a love letter to Indigenous women,” says Deroy-Olson. “This film shows Roki’s coming of age, as she comes to terms with the horrible events that have happened to her and learns her way in the world and through womanhood from her aunt. Conversations about women’s bodies are so stigmatized, so I had a lot of fun getting to talk about them through film.”

“My goal is always to bring more humanity to situations where it was lacking before,” Tremblay adds. “It’s a universal experience on this planet to lose people. We can all identify with what that loss means.”

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Tremblay also strove for representation both in front of and behind the camera, much like the groundbreaking approach taken on Reservation Dogs. She shot Fancy Dance on the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, infusing $1.9 million into that economy and hiring nearly 180 Native cast and crew members. When the film wasn’t picked up despite its promising 2023 Sundance premiere, Tremblay and Gladstone went to bat for its distribution and called upon Hollywood to make good on its recent diversity pledges.

Now, with the movie streaming globally, Tremblay is ecstatic that “Jax and Roki are dancing into hearts all across the world and that the Cayuga language is being heard in more than 100 countries.” There’s already talk of Gladstone getting another Oscar nomination, and Deroy-Olson similarly shines as a precocious child forced to confront adult circumstances, an all-too-common phenomenon for Native youth grappling with the hard truths of modern Indigenous life.

It’s this deeply felt humanity that Tremblay managed to infuse into every second of the film that makes Fancy Dance a must-watch—as well as a learning opportunity for Native and non-Native viewers alike. “What I hope people take away from Fancy Dance and all the Indigenous cinema we’ve seen recently is how we can be better neighbors to each other,” she concludes.

Fancy Dance is now streaming on Apple TV+.



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