This is sort of Christmas movie adjacent so bear with me. It’s certainly not ACTUALLY a Christmas movie by any accounts which is why I’m going to forgo the usual categories for classification. This is a documentary that shares the journey of Debbie Allen – both her dance academy in general and one of their major performances and the academy’s primary fundraiser, The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.

We get to learn a bit about her personal journey as a dancer, how it’s influenced her life, her family and her desire to have this studio and this performance opportunity for her dancers. I have to say early on here that I PERSONALLY connected with this piece because I grew up doing ballet from age 10-18. (And as young as that sounds, I was a little late to the party as is mentioned in the movie. So many of the best dancers start VERY young – as early as 3 or 4. I had the acting/performing part down but because of my late start, the finer points of the technique escaped me.)

I felt connected to the experience that they showed of long rehearsals, being there all day, sweaty leotards and crowded studios. If you danced as a teen, you will too. The main difference for me and the part of watching this that felt especially moving was seeing what those studios could have looked like if they were filled with people who looked like me – instead of me looking into the floor to ceiling mirrors and only seeing one of me… and beyond skin color, the two elements of diversity that were so refreshing to see were their hair & and their bodies.

I have done so much personal work since I was a dancer to not only love my curls in their natural form but to figure out how to best take care of them so they can look their best. Seeing girls with curly poofs instead of the classic ballet bun kinda took my breath away. When I was dancing, I was so busy applying heat and chemicals to my hair trying to make it straight that I barely noticed how damaged most of it was until I had to cut a bunch off. Right after I cut it, I had just enough hair to pull into a VERY small ponytail at the base of my neck that I curled under to try to resemble a little bun. When I went to class with it like that, I remember how much of a problem it was that my hair wasn’t actually in a bun. Imagine the message of cultural acceptance my dance teachers would have taught me if they’d have just left me alone that day. We won’t even go into the message of self-love they could have taught me broadly if my curls would have been allowed in that studios AT ALL.

And then — their bodies. First of all, you’ll notice that their bodies are a much wider range of bodies than you’d see in a documentary about the average dance academy. Thicker through the middle in some cases and with stronger, more muscular legs. The one lead, April, even talks about how her legs are slightly overdeveloped for ballet. Having been trained with all white dancers — which 100% informed what a “good” dance body means in my mind — I actually noticed her legs before she even mentioned them. They looked more like the legs of a sprinter. She likely got similar external messages about what a dancer’s body should look like but what we DON’T see in this film is any comments from the teachers about hers or anyone else’s shape or how they should/could/would change their bodies to be more successful in the field. It feels like this might be in part due to the fact that Allen had her body harshly critiqued in her childhood but watching a documentary about a tough dance studio that doesn’t break down the self-esteem of growing girls in an image obsessed industry was a gift. Imagine how it might feel to live it. Makes me wanna give all my money to Debbie Allen so more black and brown girls can discover the love of ballet AND the love of themselves as they are.

The other thing that struck me was that Allen isn’t always particularly “nice” to the dancers. They don’t come after them for their bodies or hair but they take NO NONSENSE when it comes to their behavior and their commitment. You’ll see multiple times that talking is NOT tolerated… and even “normal teenage behavior”, aka, being late, or even shying away from their own greatness is not okay and she’s tough on them in the MOST loving way. I don’t know about you, but I love when people are tough on me and use it to show how much they care. I go to the moon for folx like that. I can see why Allen is SO successful in general and specifically with these kids.

The movie moves through the 3 months leading up to the performance from auditions through the opening night. You hear from Allen, from the other teachers, her husband, her daughter and the dancers all while watching the entire process of getting the show up for Christmastime. Learning about how hard Allen had to fight for a seat at the table, it is so special to watch her building her own table and providing access to it for those that would likely not be able to join the field without her support.

If you’ve ever danced in your life, if you like well made documentaries, if you enjoy the art, or if you have ever found yourself rooting for black and brown people who are unfairly excluded from experiences based on their race — this is for you. It’s truly a masterpiece that you shouldn’t miss.