Film Review: Hot to Trot

That lame title—along with the use of ho-hum music like The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited”—gives you the basic tip-off about this earnest but muddled gay take on competitive dancing.
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Gail Freedman’s Hot to Trot focuses on a group of personalities heavily involved in the world of same-sex competitive ballroom dancing. This remains a somewhat outlaw endeavor—with both partners taking turns in regard to who leads—as the more traditional, established competitions only recognize male-female partnering as eligible for competition, in what Barbara Zoloth, a founding member of the Bay Area Same-Sex Dance Association, here calls “a vertical expression of horizontal desire.”

Costa Rican immigrant Ernesto Palma gets the lion’s share of the footage, and comes across as the most open of the dancers, fluidly expressive both verbally and on the dance floor and basically unable to keep his true feelings under wraps, even confessing to a five-year crystal-meth addiction, which he was finally able to kick. He says he realized he was detroying his beauty, and if that statement sounds narcissistic, baby, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Thinking about and looking at yourself in the ever-handy mirrors makes up a good part of this sometimes absurdly flamboyant peacock universe, which can take its toll on human relationships, as with the breakup of the marriage of Kieren Jameson. Her partner, Emily Coles, has suffered from diabetes since childhood, and Freedman devotes a fair amount of footage to her struggle. Another dancer, Robbie Tristan, is diagnosed with a brain tumor for which he must return to his native Hungary for treatment he cannot afford in the States. This necessitates the need for a new partner for Palma, which he finds in the strapping Russian form of Nikolai Shpakov, a fiercely dedicated and powerful competitor.

If this review mentions the personal lives of the dancers more than their performances, that just follows the way the film pans out. With all of the relating of coming out to initially disapproving parents who gradually evolve, personal challenges, both physical and emotional, and various desires to get married and have children—or divorce—this doc is far more about being gay than being a gay dancer, with not enough extended performance footage to give you an idea of their real capabilities. This lack also softens the impetus of the movie’s inevitable contest climax, which takes place at the Gay Games in Cleveland, with one of the featured couples winning big.