Sundance deal helped punch up How She Move

Canadian urban dance drama How She Move is to open in cinemas with new dance scenes and an upgraded sound track courtesy of a deal won at Sundance Film Festival in 2007.

Canadian urban dance drama How She Move is to open in cinemas Friday with new dance scenes and an upgraded sound track thanks to a distribution deal won at last year's Sundance Film Festival.

The gritty low-budget movie set in Toronto's Jane-Finch neighbourhood so wowed audiences at Sundance that it got snatched up by Paramount Vantage the night of its festival premiere.

Director Ian Iqbal Rashid shot the original movie on a shoestring budget, but a deal at Sundance in 2007 allowed him to redo the big dance scenes.

Immediately following its first screening at the Park City, Utah, festival last year, the distributor devoted some major cash to the film. That allowed director Ian Iqbal Rashid to reshoot some of its 14 complex dance sequences, perfect the sound and convince some big names in hip-hop to contribute songs to the soundtrack.

The original movie was shot on a shoestring budget, said Rashid, who was born in Tanzania and grew up in Toronto.  

"We had 25 days to shoot it, and I never had more than three or four hours to shoot any one dance sequence," he said in a recent interview in Toronto.

"That meant our finale — the moment where our team wins a big dance contest — was just never as big as it should have been. So we reshot that sequence, and now it looks phenomenal."

Paramount deal attracted hip hop stars to film

Among the hip-hop stars he approached was Li'l Mama, who agreed to participate in the movie after hearing it was being released by Paramount and MTV.

The soundtrack also includes songs from established Canadian hip-hop artists Jelleestone and Saukrates and newcomers Mood Ruff, Tasha T and Bonafide.

Rutina Wesley as the student who turns to step-dancing in How She Move. ((Paramount Vantage/Associated Press) )

American actress Rutina Wesley stars in the film as Raya Green, the 17-year-old daughter of ambitious Jamaican immigrants who have scrimped and saved to get her into a prestigious private school.

When her parents' resources are exhausted from trying to save Raya's older sister, who has a drug problem, the girl is forced to return to the crime-ridden neighbourhood centred around the corner of Jane St. and Finch Ave.

Raya soon turns to step-dancing competitions as a way to get money, escape her grim surroundings and get herself back into the elite school.

Rashid said he didn't want to demonize the Jane-Finch area when telling Raya's story.

"It was kind of walking a fine line because the story is about a girl who wants to leave because of all the troubles there, but there's also some great stories up there and some good people — we wanted to give a sense of that, too," he said.

"There's a sense of menace in the background, but it's not glorified in any way, which I think was important. "

Dance moves have starring role

Part of the appeal of How She Move lies in the dance routines. Step dancing is a combination of hip-hop and break-dance moves punctuated by hitting hands against the body and stomping feet on the floor. 

Longtime choreographer Tre Armstrong plays Raya's childhood friend, Michelle, who's harbouring some bitterness about Raya's absence from the neighbourhood.

Armstrong has served as an assistant choreographer on some major U.S. productions, including a musical version of A Raisin in the Sun, but this was her first acting role. 

"This movie, I believe, will be successful no matter what," Armstrong said.

"I'm super-thrilled about it. And I'm more thrilled, honestly, that it's a Canadian feature. I'm overjoyed that it's a Canadian project set in Canada, and that it could be just as big a success outside of Canada because it's simply such a good film."