[WATCH] ‘How to Dance in Ohio’ director Alexandra Shiva on her Peabody-winning HBO documentary

During our recent webcam chat (watch above), “How to Dance in Ohio” director Alexandra Shiva readily admits to being proud of the Peabody win for this HBO documentary about a group of young people with autism preparing for their first spring formal. “They keep talking about how a Peabody is for stories that matter and to have them say this story matters is thrilling and validating, really more than I could’ve dreamt of.” Shiva reveals she was inspired to make the film after watching her friend’s daughter grow up with autism. “She actually doesn’t speak.  just had a lot of questions about what coming of age looked like on the autism spectrum.”

Research led her to a therapy center in Columbus, OH, operated by Dr. Emilio Amigo, who told her of his plans to spend three months preparing his clients for a prom. “It was the most relatable way to tell the story,” she explains. “Who doesn’t know what it’s like to be scared about your first dance and your first date, or talking to someone for the first time? All of those fears that a lot of people have gone through at one point or another, and then these teenagers and young adults were going through it in a magnified way.”

She recalls, “we spent the first entire week just getting the clients comfortable with the process. They really, I think, wanted to feel comfortable and understand why we were doing this, what did it mean, where was it going to go, all of those things that are really important to ask when you’re going to be the subject of a documentary.”

After screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, it was shown to 2,200 high schoolers. “It was extraordinary to see young people empathizing and really relating in that way,” she says. “I think to see people struggling in a more extreme way than the average teen was very powerful for them. That kind of bridge of understanding was the goal. We’re not all that different. Some people struggle in different ways, but the essence is the same.”

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