Diverse voices

Fancy Dance’s breakthrough star Isabel Deroy-Olson on the importance of celebrating Indigenous narratives
By J.L. Sirisuk | Film+TV | 5 July 2024

Still, ‘Fancy Dance’ by Erica Tremblay, 2024

In the 90s, Thelma & Louise hit the road on a quest for liberation, trekking down a highway of defiance against female injustice and violence. Similarly, Erica Tremblay’s debut film Fancy Dance takes us on an evocative journey with aunt and niece duo, Jax and Roki, exploring the complexities of Indigenous life, along with the strength and resilience of Native American women.

Portrayed by Indigenous actors Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson, after her sister’s disappearance, Jax [Gladstone] becomes the guardian of her niece, Roki [Deroy-Olson], within the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma, and the two embark on a mission to find Roki’s mother. Balancing the search for her missing sister and preparing Roki for an upcoming powwow [an event in which people from diverse Indigenous nations gather to celebrate and honour the traditions of their ancestors], Jax and Roki hit the road, turning their quest into a profound exploration of the current reality of Indigenous women’s struggles in a colonised world and a failed justice system. Their journey shows how the open road can serve as a powerful narrative space, weaving stories of resistance and transformation as it stretches across a vastness of experience – guiding us through the tensions, deep bonds, and traditions of a culture and its people.

Marking the film’s release, we spoke to Deroy-Olson about working with Lily Gladstone, making a playlist to get into character, and the importance of diverse storytelling.

Still, ‘Fancy Dance’ by Erica Tremblay, 2024

J.L. Sirisuk: Let’s go back to the beginning, what made you want to pursue acting?
Isabel Deroy-Olson: When I was younger, I never thought of acting as something that I could do, as something attainable. It was more this dream that other kids had. I grew up as a studio dancer performing jazz, lyrical ballet, contemporary, so I was on the stage a lot. Through that, I also did a lot of musical theatre, but I never thought of it as acting. I thought of it as dance until my mom found a random Facebook post for an open call, and we tried it. The casting director seemed to like me because she sent me another audition. After that, I was like, “I think this is something I want to try for real.” And then I just kept auditioning.

JLS: That brings us to Fancy Dance – I loved it. How did this role come to you?
IDO: Fancy Dance was an open call. It was a self-tape that I sent in. I didn’t know this, but Erica [Tremblay] had seen me previously when I sent in a self-tape for another project she was working on, Dark Winds, and I guess she saw my audition for Fancy Dance and was like, “This is a good age range now.” I had a meeting with Erica, and I drove down to Oklahoma for the summer.

JLS: What drew you to Roki?
IDO: I have so much love for Roki. She is so bright and joyful, but she has that quiet presence, which is really beautiful and I definitely relate to her. Through that, we learn so much from what’s happening around her. That kind of quiet presence is really fun to play.

JLS: How did you prepare to embrace the role of Roki?
IDO: Roki is definitely a lot younger than I am, so I was thinking about how I was at that age and looking at my younger cousins growing up on the reservation going to powwows all the time. It was this feeling like, “I need to look at these people growing up around me, because that’s who I’m representing, and I want to get it right.” For me personally, getting ready for scenes I made a playlist for Roki and I would listen to that before I got to set every day. That was really helpful to get me in the headspace for it.

JLS: Now I’m curious – what were some of the tracks on the playlist?
IDO: There’s a lot on there. There’s Bloomsday by Samantha Crain, who did the music for Fancy Dance. Anything by Adrianne Lenker, Two of Us by the Beatles, there’s just a bunch on there. I still listen to that playlist because I really like it.

JLS: You and Lily Gladstone have such a wonderful energy in this film. It felt so natural. So how was it to work alongside her?
IDO: It was amazing. I hadn’t met Lily previously, so getting the chance to work with her was a dream because she is so generous with her time, so gracious and so genuine. The relationship Jax and Roki have feels so real because it is. Lily and I hadn’t known each other for very long, but we clicked immediately. She’s like my auntie now, we’re so close. That close relationship really shone on-screen.

Lily and I hadn’t known each other for very long, but we clicked immediately.”

Still, ‘Fancy Dance’ by Erica Tremblay, 2024

JLS: This film is such a love letter to the Indigenous community and Indigenous women. What does the story mean to you?
IDO: The fact Indigenous media-making is growing so much, [important] topics are being spoken about in spaces they weren’t previously, which is so, so important. Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and missing and murdered Indigenous people – the fact we get to talk about it on screen and reach such a wide audience is incredibly important because so many people here in North America are unaware. But the truth of the matter is, they’re on Indigenous land. So these are things that everybody should be learning about and should be wanting to learn about. The film does a really great job of showing the reality, while also keeping those moments of joy, connection and love between the two characters. Those moments of joy are my favourite parts of the film because they’re so important to remember.

I have so much love for Roki.”

Still, ‘Fancy Dance’ by Erica Tremblay, 2024

JLS: It really captures the whole spectrum of story and emotion. This is your first feature, what was memorable for you during this experience?
IDO: The chance to be on that kind of set was amazing and something I have been working towards – and that I got to act alongside Lily was incredible. Something really memorable was watching the way that Lily brings this positive energy to set that is so welcoming. She embodies light all the time, and I really learned from that, it’s something I will always strive to recreate.

JLS: And how did it feel for you to finally watch the film?
IDO: I remember after watching it, I turned to my parents and said, “I’ve never been one hundred precent proud of something before, but I’m one hundred percent proud of this.” It’s not like I’m watching myself, because I can really separate myself from the character and I care about them so much. I care about Jax and Roki. I’m so proud of it and so grateful that I was able to be a part of it.

JLS: I became so invested in the characters, and the powwow scene was special. Earlier you mentioned you have a background in dance, how did it feel to bring that talent to such a pivotal moment?
IDO: It was so fun. We had two weeks of rehearsal before filming for the powwow and to learn the Cayuga language. We worked with our dance coordinator, Holly Gray, who helped us fine-tune our skills because Lily and I both have a background in dance and already knew basic powwow steps. I was so grateful because I’ve grown up going to powwows, but getting the chance to actually really learn [the movements] was fun.

JLS: And you mentioned the language. How was it to act, and express in Cayuga?
IDO: We worked on the language with Kisa Parker, and Erica also speaks Cayuga. So whenever they said “action” or “cut” it was all in Cayuga. It was lovely to bring that language onto the set, and not only within the scene. It’s always really daunting because as Indigenous actors, we’re expected to pick up these languages so quickly, even just for self-tapes. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun, too. It’s really fulfilling to see the final product because there are so few Cayuga language speakers that we just wanted to get it right for them. To see the finished product and to see that we did it, is really rewarding.

JLS: What do you hope people take from Fancy Dance?
IDO: I hope people watch the film and really let it sit with them for a little bit. I hope that after watching it, they have this drive to learn more because it covers such important topics. That’s what I hope they take away from it, the desire to learn.

Fancy Dance is out in select cinemas now, and available to stream on Apple TV+.


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