South Korean documentary film “Dancesport Girls” is filled with genuine positive spirit. Here are a bunch of high school girls who simply enjoy themselves as preparing for their big moment to come, and it is really fun to watch them doing their best under their good teacher’s guidance. Although the reality outside their school is not that bright, they feel free and happy as they dance together, and we gladly go along with that as appreciating their warm, youthful energy on the screen.
The main background of the documentary is Geoje, an industrial city which has depended on its shipyard business for many years but is recently going through a depression. The documentary does not go into details much on that, but it occasionally looks at the big shipyards of the city instead, which look quiet and empty with no particular sign of activities.
In Geoje Girls Commercial High School, we meet a group of girls who practice dancesport after their school time. While they do not have much interest in school lesson (some of them even let themselves asleep during that time, by the way), they are all enthusiastic about this extracurricular time of theirs, and we soon see them dancing together in their practice place.
We also meet their teacher Lee Gyoo-ho, who has done a lot more than merely teaching them dancesport. Besides supervising the girls’ practice sessions, he always makes sure that they have a good time together, and I noticed how he casually interacts with his students without any forced authority. Sometimes he looks like a close friend to them, and their comfortable relationship is exemplified well by one cheerful scene in which they have a meal together.
Meanwhile, they have to be a little more serious than usual because, as shown in the beginning of the documentary, there will soon be a sportdance competition for high school students. They all want to do their best for what may be the highlight of their last year in the school, so they come to practice more than before, and we are accordingly served with several nice practice scenes. As music is played in the background, they try to dance together as well as they can, and, as far as I could see, they dance better than a bunch of girls I once encountered during my gym time.
The documentary also gives glimpses of their life outside the school, and some of these girls become a little more prominent to us than others. In case of a girl named Hyeon-bin, she works as a part-time employee during evening, and we see her practicing some dance moves a bit whenever she has a little free time. While Si-yeong will have to live alone for a while because her father must go to Seoul for a better business chance, Eun-jeong has to take care of her young siblings for herself, and Ji-hyeon has to prepare for her job application, which many of her schoolmates will do sooner or later.
In case of their teacher, the documentary shows him spending his free time with his adolescent daughter in their small apartment (his wife is never shown in the documentary, by the way), and we can clearly sense their close relationship during their conversation scene. When he later has a lunch with his fellow teacher, he tells his colleague that he does not expect any particular reward for what he has done for his students for years, and we come to admire more of his humble decency and dedication.
As the competition day is approaching, there come some problems and conflicts among the girls. Yes, there is a serious moment when the teacher must remind them that they must be more focused, but he never raises his voice, and everyone agrees to his words. When it is apparent that one of his students is having a drinking problem, he does not admonish her at all, and he lets her talk about why she sometimes drinks at night. When she is still suffering from hangover later, he gives her a practical solution without any hesitation, and that is the most amusing moment in the documentary.
Eventually, they go to the competition while being fully prepared, and the documentary entertains us with a series of good dance performance scenes shot during the competition. Sticking to its leisurely narrative pace, it wisely avoids cheap suspense, and then we come to get a modest but sweet finale which makes us reflect on what we observed from the girls and their teacher.
The documentary was originally made for a TV documentary series of Korean Broadcasting System (KBS). When director Lee Seung-moon came to Geo-je, he intended to focus on the declining shipyard business of the city, but then he found a more interesting subject from Lee Gyoo-ho and his students, so he came to change his initial plan. After broadcast in 2017 April, the documentary was re-edited for the theatrical release in 2017 September, and my review is based on the theatrical version, which is, as far as I heard from others, a bit different from the TV version in several aspects (the TV version is accompanied with a narration, for example).
While it could have shown more about its engaging human subjects, “Dancesports Girl” is still a satisfying documentary on the whole, and it gives me some feel-good moments to remember. I don’t know what lies ahead of these spirited girls, but I really hope that they will keep moving on as remembering their joyous moments.