“Fancy Dance” Writer/Director Erica Tremblay on the Power of Indigenous Storytelling

Fans of Lily Gladstone will be happy to know they can see her on the big screen again in Apple’s new release, Fancy Dance. The film centers on Jax (Gladstone) and Roki (newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olson), an Indigenous aunt and niece who live on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation and are dealing with the disappearance of Tawi, Jax’s sister and Roki’s mom. Jax and Roki are hoping they’ll meet up with Tawi at the annual powwow if she’s not found beforehand. Although elements of the story examine the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic as well as the continued impact of colonialism on Indigenous populations, the film’s heart is in the loving relationship and connection between the two lead characters. 

Fancy Dance had its premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where co-writer/director/producer Erica Tremblay was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. It has since wowed the critics and swept up numerous awards on the festival circuit.  It also won Special Mention at LA’s Outfest and Best Narrative Feature at NewFest, New York’s LGBT Film Festival. Tremblay, who identifies as queer, incorporated queerness into Jax’s character as well as their storyline. 

The Credits interviewed Tremblay, who spoke about the importance of producing as an Indigenous filmmaker, and the joy of working with Lily Gladstone and Isabel DeRoy-Olson. 


You not only directed Fancy Dance and co-wrote it with Miciana Alise, you were also an active producer on the film. 

Yes. Oftentimes, when you see someone who’s a writer and producer or director and producer, that person was just given a producer credit because of the deal they struck, not because of the work they did. I was a producer, and not just in name. I think it’s so important to recognize when BIPOC creators are producing their own work. As a woman, and more specifically, a native woman, it was very important for me to be a part of every single decision made in this film. Being an Indigenous producer is just as important to me as being a director and a writer. I see the three of those things as equal parts of me. 

Writer/director Erica Tremblay on the set of “Fancy Dance.” Courtesy Apple TV+

In Fancy Dance, you incorporate issues that challenge the Indigenous community, but the story is really centered on Lily Gladstone’s character, Jax, and her commitment to and love for her niece. 

I had worked with Lily Gladstone on a short film called Little Chief that was based in my community, and after the success of that short, people kept asking if I was going to turn it into a feature. To me, that story was pretty self-contained, and I didn’t imagine it growing into something bigger. What I recognized was that people were interested in that community, in a very strong Indigenous female character, and obviously, they wanted more Lily Gladstone. So, based on those parameters, we went off to create something new, and in doing so, I wanted to tell a story about the lives of Indigenous women. Doing something around the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives epidemic seemed like the right path to go down, but I wanted to be really careful not to create a procedural drama. We made a choice very early on that we would see no dead bodies of women or hear about the graphic violence that happens to Indigenous women. These things are on the periphery. 

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance,” in select theaters June 21 and streaming on Apple TV+ June 28.

How did Isabel DeRoy-Olson, who makes her feature debut in Fancy Dance, become part of the production? A good performance from her was essential to believing the stakes for Roki and Jax. 

Lily is just such a generous, kind person. She’s great to work with, and, obviously, incredible to watch on the screen. When we were casting for Roki, I just knew from having worked with Lily before that we needed to find someone who also had the kind of spirit that could show up on the screen in this very big way and not dim to Lily’s star power. We started casting for Roki very early on, and it was an almost two-year search. Before we even had financiers or any real budget, we got some grant money, and we immediately invested that into a casting director to start the search for Roki. We’d seen so much young Indigenous talent, but I hadn’t quite found that match I thought could stand alongside Lily for this particular story. I was casting for a TV show where we were casting for a pregnant teen, and Isabel’s tape came across my desk. She looked way too young for that role, but I just saw the talent and her spark and spunk, so I immediately called up, and I said to find her and send her some pages. She read, and we knew she was perfect. 

Isabel Deroy-Olson stars in “Fancy Dance,” in select theaters June 21 and streaming on Apple TV+ June 28.

The cornerstone of what makes Fancy Dance so repeatedly watchable is the chemistry between Lily Gladstone and Isabel DeRoy-Olson. It just jumps off the screen. 

From the moment Lily and Isabel met, their relationship has been wonderful. For prep, they did language immersion in the morning and dance in the afternoon, and they really bonded in that experience. They’re both very playful and were pranking each other on set on a daily basis. They’ve become really close, and if Fancy Dance did one beautiful thing in this world, it was to bring Lily and Isabel together. They’re just two of the most curious, generous, beautiful spirits. As a director, the most important relationships you have are with your cast members. To have two people show up with such energy, spirit, and talent, I just felt so lucky walking onto that set every day. I knew they were going to bring everything they had to every moment of filming, and I think that energy showed up onscreen. 

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance,” in select theaters June 21 and streaming on Apple TV+ June 28.

Roki wears a fringed purple jacket throughout much of the movie, and it almost represents hope that she’ll see her mother, Tawi, again. 

We wanted Tawi to be alive. The character doesn’t interact with our characters in this story, but we needed Tawi’s presence to be there, so the powwow represents Roki’s relationship with her mother and her optimism that her mother may still be alive. It’s almost like if she doesn’t get to that powwow, then that dream of her mother still being alive will end. For a while, the purple jacket that Roki wears wasn’t in the script, and we had gotten a note that we needed to feel the presence of Tawi more. I had worked in the sex industry for many years as a stripper, and I remember this cowgirl suit I wore that had the fringe and all of that. I remember when I would wear it, thinking how subversive it was. Then I thought, “What if Roki found something of her mother’s, and then it was this jacket? When we shot that scene with Roki going through her mother’s things, I said to Isabel, “When you put that jacket on, it’s like your mother giving you a hug. And you aren’t going to take it off for the rest of the film because that means if you have that on, she’s with you.” So she wears that little jacket throughout the whole film, and we are very careful not to show too much movement with it until the very end when she gets to the powwow. That jacket is the stand-in for a more traditional shawl with the tassels used in the dance. 

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance.” Courtesy Apple TV+

The powwow is a very beautiful way to end your story. Shooting that must have been complicated. 

Filming the powwow was actually very difficult. It was an overnight shoot. We essentially had to throw our own powwow because we filmed during COVID, so we couldn’t just go take one over that was already happening. But it was so beautiful to have all the powwow dancers there in Oklahoma who stayed up all night and made that scene possible. It was a great example of the community coming together. 


Fancy Dance is in select theaters and streaming globally on Apple TV+.



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Featured image: Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance.” Courtesy Apple TV+ 


Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale is lead contributor for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, where she writes reviews and spotlights focused on female filmmakers and women in film. You can find her work on the site at AWFJ.org. She has owned ArtInsights, an art gallery dedicated to film art, for over 25 years, which has resulted in expertise in the history of animation and film concept art.  She is in her eighth year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con.