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Dancing for Their Lives: 'Walk Run Cha-Cha' Finds Joy on the Ballroom Floor

By Katie Murphy

From Laura Nix's 'Walk Run Cha-Cha.' Courtesy of New York Times Op-Docs

When filmmaker Laura Nix walked into a dance studio in the San Gabriel Valley to find 40 people ballroom-dancing in the middle of the day, she thought, "What is this beauty? Why is this happening in the middle of the workday?" Intrigued, Nix signed up for classes and befriended Paul and Millie Cao, a middle-aged married couple who have dedicated themselves to hours of rigorous dance training and competition in addition to their full-time jobs. She began filming the Caos; as she explains, "You have to start every film with a question, and the question I had was,  'Why are you dancing so so seriously?’ I just couldn’t understand it. When I learned more about their love story, I started to understand why they were doing it as seriously as they were: they were making up for the time that they lost."

The resulting documentary, Walk Run Cha-Cha, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Short Subject, and Nix is currently working on a feature-length version of the film.

Documentary spoke with Nix about the nomination, her advice for aspiring filmmakers, and how Paul and Millie's dancing has inspired her own.

DOCUMENTARY: Congratulations on the nomination! What have the last few weeks been like?

LAURA NIX: The past few weeks have been kind of unworldly, in a great way. I've been filming with Paul and Millie Cao for six years and I met them seven years ago, so I've known them for a long time. We've become friends and I really care about them. The Sunday before the nomination was 40 years ago to the day that Paul entered the country as a refugee, and they had a big banquet to celebrate; it also coincided with Paul and Millie's 30th wedding anniversary, so they had this big party with 15 dance performances and they renewed their vows in front of everybody. It was an incredible evening. We stayed up late that night and went back to their house at 5:00 the next morning so that we could be together [for the nomination]. I know it sounds like I'm making this up, but the day of the announcement was also Millie’s birthday! It was this coinciding of all these forces, and I just think it’s extraordinary that we found out that we were nominated for an Oscar 40 years to the day since Paul first came to the country.

D: What about Paul and Millie’s story do you think has resonated or connected with audiences?

LN: I think people are inspired by Paul and Millie's dedication to their dancing; they're a great role model for creative aging. I did a Q & A with the medical director of the Motion Picture and Television Foundation, and it was fascinating; he understood how important it is to dance at a later age. That kind of physical activity, as well as improving right/left brain coordination, staves off dementia and Alzheimer's, improves your muscle tone; the statistics are just off the charts about the health benefits of dancing, not to mention what it does for you mentally, emotionally and cognitively. I'm such a believer in dance as a way of finding joy. I’m really inspired by Paul and Millie; because of them, I started dancing again, and the story became personal for me in a different way. I was always attracted to their story, but when I started dancing as well, I started to understand it on a different level. When you're middle-aged, you're not dancing in that way because you're perfect at it; you're doing it because of how it makes you feel and because you love it.

D: What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?

LN: From a story level, it took me a long time to really get the details of Paul and Millie's love story. Paul and Millie are very comfortable with me filming them dancing; they love to have somebody around to document their performances. They were more hesitant to tell me personal details about their romance: how they met, what that was like, what it was like to be separated. That happened later on in the process of filming, toward the end of those six years; that’s why I decided to do the interviews with them off-camera instead of on-camera. I did 14 hours of audio interviews with Paul and Millie separately, and I found that it created a more intimate atmosphere for them to tell me the full story of how they met, what that was like, and more details about how they left Vietnam, which was quite traumatic for both of them.

I've done so many on-camera interviews in my life and I'm very used to them, but I think that it can be very difficult for a documentary subject to perform their story for us on camera. It’s a lot of pressure to do that, particularly if it's personal. I think that I never would have gotten some of the answers that I did if I had asked those questions on camera. It took so long to really hear them tell their story, and that would have been brutal for somebody to do on camera. It’s much easier and more relaxed and intimate to do it with audio-only; they ended up telling me things they’d never even told each other.

D: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

LN: This was the first film that I've shot in my hometown; I've shot a lot of movies all over the world and other cities in America, and I was actually looking for a film to make in Los Angeles. I think that there’s something to be said for making something close to you, because it gives you unprecedented access to your subject. I really recommend trying to find something near where you live. And sometimes when you're filming, you don’t know: is there anything here? I wasn't sure if there was anything there, but I believed in my bones that if I hung in there long enough, I would get something that was as complex and rich as what I was feeling when I walked in the studio. For a long time, I was just getting a lot of dancing! It took me a long time to figure out what the story would be, but I knew that story was there. If you can hang in there long enough to get that, it’s worth your while.

Director Laura Nix

D: Are there any unsung heroes that helped make this film possible?

LN: Their teachers, Maksym Kapitanchuk and Elena Krifuks, are incredible dancers, choreographers and teachers. I've taken dance classes for many years, and being a good dancer doesn’t necessarily mean you're a good teacher. Maks and Elena are exceptional teachers and so dedicated to their students. This film would not exist without them. Paul and Millie are the dancers that they are today because they received such incredible training, and the passion and commitment that Elena put towards the film, making sure that Paul and Millie were prepared especially for the final staged dance sequence; we're so grateful for their partnership.

My editor, Alex Juutilainen, is exceptionally talented, and we made so many discoveries together in the edit room—particularly the scene with the portrait shots and using the audio interviews. We were really struggling to figure out how we could tell this back story, because there’s quite a lot of details to cover. He was playing around once with these portrait shots and using the interstitial moments, because I just let the camera run the whole time, and he showed me one day, "Hey, I'm kind of experimenting with this; what do you think?" And I just loved it. It's so crucial to the film, and it’s something that we discovered together in the edit room.

Shana Hagan's cinematography was incredible. It's very difficult to shoot dance; it's like shooting sports, and it's hard to capture. I'm really grateful to her, for how much patience she had in the preparation of getting ready to shoot not only the final dance sequence, but even a dance class or a rehearsal. She was a really wonderful collaborator. And due to budget restrictions, we had a number of miracles that we had to pull off, and my producer Colette Sandstedt just kept pulling rabbits out of hats; we would never have gotten to the end without her as well.


Walk Run Cha-Cha screens as part of IDA's DocuDay LA, February 8 at 2:45 p.m. at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. Laura Nix and Producer Colette Sandstedt will participate in a post-screening discussion. Click here for tickets.

Katie Bieze Murphy earned her bachelor's degree in Literature with certificates in Documentary Studies and Film/Video/Digital from Duke University. She earned her master's degree in Film and Video from American University. She currently resides in Washington, DC.