With her directorial film debut, The Fits, director Anna Rose Holmer embraced the challenge of achieving the sparse, evocative lines of her script, co-written with writer/editor Saela Davis and producer Lisa Kjerulff. “The dancer blossoms before us,” describes one sequence following Toni (Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old girl in inner city Cincinnati who trades boxing for drill team routines at the town rec center. “Time stops but it doesn’t stop,” reads another, hinting at the strange, seizure-like “fits” that soon spread across the close-knit dance team, The Lionesses.
Holmer chose to translate those cinematic hints through a controlled stylistic approach, along with a keen willingness to collaborate with her young cast of Cincinnati locals. Pitched and developed through the Venice Biennale, the film grew in stages from the seed idea of a mysterious epidemic into a more character-focused drama set in the world of dance.
“The story was pretty open to start with, in terms of the ‘fits’ and Toni as a character,” Holmer tells The Creators Project. “Cheer groups were more in my life when I was younger, so that's where the project started—as a more gymnastics-type, athletic cheer setting. It wasn't quite right though, so we started to look at different dance forms that could hold water narratively. The Fits really came alive as a film when we found the Q-Kidz—they were the only group we formally asked to be a part of it.”
Based in Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood, the Q-Kidz are a community dance team organized and led by Marquicia “Ms. Quicy” Jones-Woods. For the past 30 years, she’s kept kids involved in positive outlets, and preached methods of helping the community in small but crucial ways.
“It initially started in the courtyard, which we called The Court at the time,” Jones-Woods explained over the phone from Ohio. “We'd get together—boys and girls—and paint the rocks, pick up the trash, go to church or on field trips, have block parties. And I've always had the trust of the community. At 17 or 18 years old I had 60 kids behind me, with their parents letting them go even though I was a kid, too.”
Having landed on competition drill dance teams as an effective and fun channel for her efforts, Jones-Woods has since grown Q-Kidz into a full-time operation. With her twin daughters Mariah and Chariah Jones helping to run operations and choreograph dances, they were more than prepared to start a long-term project like The Fits. After an initial misunderstanding in which Jones-Woods thought Holmer’s idea to make a film was a prank, the two hit it off after further explanation and soon met in Cincinnati. Holmer brought Jones-Woods on as an associate producer, and began casting roles from the dance team, including the pivotal character of Toni.
“We opened up casting first to just the Q-Kidz, and then we stopped because we simply found all the parts,” Holmer said. “In reality they have a couple hundred girls, but we cast about 45 of them in the film, including Royalty [Hightower]. Sasha Fierce is Royalty’s name on the team, and she's just an incredible dancer and actor. In fact, we had to work a lot with [movement consultant on the film] Celia Rowlson-Hall in giving her specific moves to appear bad at dancing at first.”
When it came to both the dance sequences and the fits that the dancers suffer, Holmer orchestrated a layered working dynamic among her crew. Mariah and Chariah Jones helped choreograph the film’s four featured “stand battles”—single elimination dance-off tournaments, essentially— and drill choreography, which mixed in aspects of Toni’s character as she attempts to fit in with the Lionesses.
“Once those dances were set, Celia and I talked about all of these scenes, and Celia broke them down into segments that Royalty could do,” Holmer said. “Each scene is a combination of voices, timing and the power that's coming from Royalty as a performer. There’s some boxing moves and punches as she begins, and that turns into hair flips later on as she becomes part of the Lionesses.”
The Q-Kidz Dance Team in Anna Rose Holmer's THE FITS. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
Though The Fits marks Holmer’s first feature film, she’s delved into expressing movement cinematically for years. As co-director of A Ballet in Sneakers: Jerome Robbins and Opus Jazz, and then as producer on Jody Lee Lipes’ documentary Ballet 422, she understands how the human body glides throughout a frame. With Steve McQueen’s Hunger as a main reference for The Fits, she set down a detailed visual vocabulary with DP Paul Yee, in order to contrast the more flexible input from cast and crew.
“In terms of the conversations we were having about the script, we wanted to make sure everybody knew they were part of it,” Holmer said. “I was [in Cincinnati] for about six weeks before we started filming, and it was all about sitting down and listening to the kids. The time before we started was one of the most beautiful parts of making this film. The rec center where we were filmed was where they really practiced, and the cast rewrote a lot of the dialogue. They're also amazing dancers that compete at the national level, and also the boxers (the Queen City Boxing Club) are junior Olympic level. They are exceptional kids who really are masters of their craft.”
Recently that talent was showcased at a recent New York screening of the film, where Ms. Quicy showed up with the Q-Kidz, including Hightower, to perform.
“It was so amazing,” Holmer shared. “The entire cast of girls came, and it was so powerful. To be able to celebrate together and showcase the beauty in community that existed long before we collaborated—it was why we were able to make such a great film, through their generosity.”
Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. Jones-Woods pointed to that same performance as the epitome of what she strives toward with her Q-Kidz program, as the type of positive story that news likes to bury in favor of more sensationalist material.
“For 30 years I've been working out of the rec center with these kids, trying to show them that there's life outside of the inner city, and we’ve just been invisible,” Jones-Woods explained. “30 years is a long time for people not to know that you're here, but you know as soon as there's a shootout—boom, there's your community with a spotlight on it. I've drilled for years just to be able to take the kids to places like [theme park] Kings Island, so that performance in New York was, for me, a great thing. We were able to express more of what the kids are really about.”
She continued, “These kids who have all these other struggles in the inner city, they are really dreaming big and want to become productive citizens and do great things. A lot of times people fear coming into our neighborhood, because all they see is the worst of it. But the fact is, there's a really good, positive thing going here that is at risk of being overlooked.”
Find more information on The Q-Kidz at q-kidz.com. The Fits is now playing in NY and LA.