Dan Watt is a man of many talents. He is a creative choreographer and dancer, accomplished filmmaker, and prolific director & producer. He has made an indelible mark on the arts, producing Gala Fundraisers with Melissa Manchester, Carol Channing, Bea Arthur, Chita Rivera and Dixie Carter. Dan has also produced songs with the iconic Ben Vereen and Tony Nominee, Anika Larsen’s on her debut cd “SING ME TO SLEEP”. But his greatest triumph to date might just be his inspiring documentary film, “Everybody Dance.”
“Everybody Dance” is a poignant tribute to the love of dance, the power of determination, and the beauty of inclusivity. The film focuses on capturing the authentic stories of the children and their families. Watt’s film challenges conventional ideas about ability and disability, breaking down stereotypes while celebrating diversity and the human spirit.
The documentary chronicles the story of five kids with different levels of abilities who, despite their individual challenges, are rehearsing for an end-of-year ballet recital. All this is made possible because of the relentless efforts of their dedicated ballet teacher Bonnie Schlachte, the founder and director of Ballet For All Kids in Agoura Hills, California. With an unwavering spirit and a heart full of passion she created the first ballet studio to offer a classical ballet program to children of all abilities, believing in their capabilities, their potential, and their right to express themselves through the medium of dance.
Dan’s decision to tell this unique story came from a deep-seated belief in the transformative power of dance and the importance of inclusivity in the arts. He has always been a staunch advocate for the idea that dance is a universal language, one that can bridge gaps, break down barriers, and bring people together.
Director/ producer Dan Watt was gracious enough to talk to me about “Everybody Dance.”
H360: As a choreographer yourself , can you tell me about the inspiration behind your documentary film, “Everybody Dance,” and how you first discovered the ballet teacher and dance program featured in the film.
DAN: My initial idea was to see how the determination, dedication and commitment to studying the arts could be applied in every day life. As you know I am a former dancer, dance teacher and choreographer – One night I had a dream about two girls I taught maybe 16/17 yrs ago. They happen to have autism – I did not know much about autism so I just taught the class as I always did and realized that nothing had to be changed in my teaching style and method. I did however chat with Fran, the mom, to see if there were any specifics that I was not aware of and to educate myself and she did actually tell me that one of the girls had sensory sensitivities and sensitive to touch and to not worry about physically adjusting her arms etc just continue to show her. All kids will pick up certain dance steps at their own pace so I corrected every child when needed and carried on. A week or so later I had another dream about Fran and her two daughters and I thought, this is a higher power poking me saying “THIS is your Movie” …. So I trusted myself and stated my journey and here we are. I did research on different conservatories and schools across the country and stumbled upon Bonnie and her school, Ballet for ALL Kids. At her studio the kids take a full hour ballet classes – Plie, Tendu, Releve etc. and I thought this is the story I needed to tell. These kids were getting the full benefits of ballet and I was excited to see how they applied them at school and at home.
H360: How did you ensure a respectful and inclusive representation of the young dancers in your film?
DAN: It’s all in the name of the studio, Ballet for ALL Kids. Bonnie takes anyone who wants to study ballet. The studio is not a dance studio only for kids with disabilities, anyone is welcome. Bonnie has a degree in phycology and has spent the past 25 years developing and implementing a proven method of learning for effectively teaching the arts to individuals of all abilities and learning styles in an inclusive environment focusing on the strength of each individual student. My job was to try and capture this through the eyes and stories of the students and families.
When I started filming, I followed 11 kids who’s personality jumped out to me and I thought would translate well on film. Then I had to make sure the parents wanted to be interviewed to. I wanted to make sure that this documentary told THEIR STORIES in THEIR WORDS and I was just the vessel used to do that. I felt it was important for it to be coming directly from the kids and parents – I wanted to be educated and enlightened in all aspects so I just observed and listened. By doing just that, my life has been changed for ever. – My objective was that others would feel the same way after watching the film
H360: Were there any adjustments that had to be made in your approach as a filmmaker to capture their experiences authentically?
DAN: I told Bonnie I wanted to be a fly on the wall and not interfere with the class. These parents were paying for their child to take a ballet class and I wanted to respect that and not interfere. I went up to the classes a few times before we started filming so the kids got use to me sitting in the back of the room so they would then be used to me.
Well, the first day of filming I arrived with a few camera people and a sound guy. Once we walked into the dance studio I realized this just won’t work. I guess I was a little overambitious and came with too much equipment for this particular film. The kids, like any group of kids, were fascinated by the boom mic that looked like a huge caterpillar and they wanted to pet it, the camera tripod was a smaller version of a jungle gym – I quickly got my crew out of the studio as we were a distraction and that was not my intention. My DP and I decided the only way to shoot the studio footage was a lab mic on Bonnie and a hand held camera on his sholder. I think it paid off and gives the film the a true feeling of being in the classroom because Ben (DP) could move freely around the kids and class.
As a former dancer teacher myself, I knew the basic structure of how a dance class works, because of this experience I was able to prep Ben on where to go in the classroom and certain times and not be in the way. I communicated with Bonnie constantly to make sure we were not intrusive in any way and as time when on, everyone just thought we were part of the class !
H360: Can you shed some light on the impact the dance program has had on these young participants?
DAN: I think the best way to answer this question is for your audience to see the film. I am humbled by the parents who truly opened up about their experiences and offered insight to how taking dance class has made their kids blossom in confidence, social skills, focus, motor skills and more. The Arts and Arts Education offer these benefits to EVERYONE and the families in the film just show a heightened version of this.
H360: Were there any transformational moments or stories that particularly stood out to you during the filming process?
DAN: A moment that changed my life forever and made my vision for the film even clearer happened on a day I was not shooting, but at Target (No, they are not a sponsor for the film but should be now.😁) – I was shopping one day and I went down an isle where a girl was having a small tantrum laying on the floor, as I walked by, I thought, “I wonder if she’s on the spectrum” – I didn’t think, “what a spoiled kid” or “why isn’t her mom doing anything?” A switch had been flipped in my brain – my perspective and outlook had changed. By being with these kids and families on a weekly basis my eyes had been opened and I had been educated me just by being there. When I got in my car I started to cry, realizing how blessed I was to have found these kids and their families.
H360: Did you encounter any misconceptions or stereotypes surrounding dance and individuals with disabilities during the making of this documentary?
DAN: Actually, no not at all and that’s because of Bonnie and her philosophy and mission at Ballet for All Kids dance studio. Everyone is welcome and if you walked by the window, you wouldn’t know if someone has a disability or not because the classes are open to everyone and integrated. It is a studio that is neurodiverse and welcoming, and you feel that as soon as you walk in the door.
H360: Can you share some insights into the multifaceted role of this ballet teacher in guiding and nurturing the young dancers through their rehearsals and the recital?
DAN: Bonnie’s approach is that everybody has abilities that can be used as a springboard to learn new skills and enhance a personal sense of accomplishment. She combines visual aids (props), auditory and kinesthetics into each class, that’s one of the things that drew me to Bonnie and her method, she taught like I use to – using many different means to convey to your student the dance move. An example is physicality showing the kids what first position is and also offering them the visual of their feet being placed like a slice of pizza. There are so many more in-depth ones in the move as you know but we’ll let the audience experience them when watching.
H360: What did you observe in terms of her impact on their confidence and self-expression?
DAN: If you have a good teacher and loving surroundings, the Arts can be beneficial to anyone. Bonnie offers classes to kids who might otherwise not get the opportunity to study because the studio is set up with “traditional” and “antiquated” guidelines. Studio owners need to rethink how they structure their classes or add more classes that are all inclusive. What is amazing about Bonnie’s method’s is that it’s so easy to do. (And she actually offers a teaching course of her method on her website) There is an amazing girl in the film, Breezy, who I actually didn’t start out following but after a few months I saw the smile on her face in class and then her eyes lit up when the song for her tap number came on. I grabbed Ben and said start filming her, we gotta add her to the list. When you see her on stage it is absolutely magical, she lights up that stage and all you can do is smile along with her because you actually feel the love she has while dancing.
H360: Was there any particular scene or encounter during the documentary that stirred your emotions as a filmmaker?
DAN: There are so many scenes that touch my heart, well, actually live in my heart. One is with Liam and his mom, Jamie on their couch at home. I think it’s such a moving scene that I don’t want to spoil it for your readers, but you know the one I’m talking about – it shows the heart of this film in just 2 minutes. I was lucky to spend time with these amazing families that I had to rely on my editor Isaiah Camp to take the lead. I was with the kids every weekend and became emotionally attached to so many of them and (in fact still friends with many of them) that I needed him to narrow down who should be in the film. I had to trust his talent as an editor to find the stories that translated well to the screen and had an arch … if to was up to me it would have been a mini-series, and everyone would have been included.
H360: What message or main takeaway do you hope viewers will walk away with after watching “Everybody Dance”?
DAN: Focus on the similarities. All these kids came together with one main goal, to dance. Everyone focused on accomplishing this – learn the steps and choreography – We all come upon obstacles in our lives that we have to work our way through – Some may experience the world in different ways and if we embrace this it actually can help us see the wonders of dancing to our own rhythm yet still dance together.
H360: How do you think this film can contribute to conversations and initiatives surrounding inclusion and disability representation in the arts?
DAN: EVERYBODY DANCE gives you a glimpse into the lives of some amazing kids and their families. We all have obstacles in our lives, that we have to maneuver through, make adjustments and try new ways to move forward – These families offer us a perspective that can shows us that we really are all the same. I think Bonnie says it best: “The Arts are an amazing equalizer, and the benefits of ballet are self-esteem, self-confidence, focus, motor skills – the list goes on and on – that’s for ANY KID. But what that does for a kid that’s been told their entire life they’re different and not as good as the rest of the world, is miraculous.”
H360: What future projects are you currently working on, and do you plan to continue exploring themes of inclusivity and the power of the arts in your upcoming works?
DAN: All I will say on this is that I am working on a documentary with TONY award and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway Producer Daryl Roth so stay tuned !
Dan’s role in this narrative extends beyond just being a filmmaker. His background as a choreographer and dancer allowed him to capture the grace and beauty of ballet in a way that is both authentic and moving.
“Everybody Dance”, Dan Watt tells his story with the sensitivity it deserves. He carefully navigates the delicate balance between respecting the experiences of the young dancers and showcasing their talent.
In “Everybody Dance,” he has created a film that is not only engaging watch but also a celebration of dance, of diversity, and of the magic that happens when we believe in the potential of every individual. It is a film that will inspire, touch hearts, and remind us all of the power of inclusivity.
It is a language that transcends physical limitations, a medium that allows for self-expression, and a platform for empowerment. for everybody.
“Everybody Dance” is currently available for FREE on FreeVee through Amazon Prime.
The film is also available on AppleTV, Itunes, Amazon, GooglePlay (for a fee)
“Everybody Dance” has 100 % on ROTTEN TOMATOES and got 5/5 Stars and a Blue Ribbon by Common Sense Media who rates filmed with the goal of finding the best of family entertainment. Dan Watt has also won the 2023 Chita Rivera Award for Best Direction of a Documentary.
IG – EverybodyDANCEdoc
IG – Dan’s Personal – Dancindanw
X ( formerly Twitter )- EveryDANCEdoc
All Photos Courtesy of Dan Watt