Lan Tsubata Lee: Director of “Dancing Joy”

Mie (younger sis), Karen Tsubata (Mom), and Lan (older sis)

Lan, Mie, and Kensei Tsubata are three homeschooled siblings with an entrepreneurial ethic who turned their personal interests into successful careers. Kensei, the brother, went on to become an IT professional. Mie, who enjoyed film editing, began her own production company. Lan pursued dance, choreography, and event coordination. In fact, it was one of Lan’s dancing activities that inspired the ultimate family project.

Homeschooling in the Washington, DC area and always on the lookout for hands-on educational opportunities, the Tsubata family found themselves involved in one creative activity after another. Their most ambitious project sought to promote learning, self-expression, and global unity through a feature-length documentary film about dance.

“It was really an extension of how we homeschool,” said Lan Tsubata Lee, who directed Dancing Joy. “The way we were homeschooled,” Lan’s younger sister Mie recalled, “it was very much getting out there and doing things. That’s how we learned. We threw ourselves into the process. I think it opened up a world of possibilities.”

Dancing Joy was a major undertaking. The film features 21 dance troupes performing in 10 countries, from Northern Ireland to Nepal. Lan, her mother Kate, and two camera operators traveled 56,000 miles over a span of three months to record the international performances, which are set to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and its renowned “Ode to Joy.”

With this classic musical background, native dancers from 21 different cultures around the world performed their traditional dance in locations of natural and historical significance. worked

The crew relied heavily on the support of Capital Area Christian Homeschool Group, a co-op that the Tsubata family had connected with early on in their home education journey. The group provided a wide range of help from childcare, to meals for the cast and crew, to financial aid, to just plain encouragement.

Group founder Charlene Benjamin said that helping with the film felt especially gratifying, considering her original goal for the co-op was not simply to provide classes but also to build an enriching community.

“It’s a tremendous model for our children,” she said. As far as she’s concerned, it shows them, “you can do hard things. You can do big things.” Dancing Joy is one of the few films with women in the key roles of producer, director, editor and color graders.

Dancing Joy: The Music

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Choral, was the first to introduce human voices and the poetry of Freidrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in a symphonic masterpiece. Surprisingly, Ludwig van Beethoven was almost completely deaf when he composed his Ninth Symphony between 1822-1824.

So, the Tsubata family made a point to include the deaf and hard of hearing culture in Dancing Joy. “We wanted to honor Beethoven’s own battle with hearing loss, so the first group we approached was the Gallaudet Dance Company, who originated ASL Dance, and who play a key role in the film, including the sign-language-based dance moves to interpret the choral lyrics.”

Director Lan Tsubata Lee discusses a scene with a group of American Indian dancers

Dancing Joy: The Dance

The idea for Dancing Joy began from a chance encounter, at the Dead Sea in Israel, in 2005. Lan’s performing arts group met some Druze students on a school excursion and did a spontaneous performance for them. The students responded by turning on their music and showing their traditional dancing, the debka. As both groups were dancing, they beckoned in the watchers, until virtually every person in the parking lot was dancing together! Hundreds of people from all over the world were suddenly laughing and enjoying themselves.

Kate Tsubata said, “while I was watching this, I thought: ‘This is what peace looks like.’ Which led to another thought: ‘How can I share this?’”

“For 12 years, this vision gradually took shape in my mind; a film that would let audiences journey to many distant lands, and experience the dance—the color—the scenery—to the music Beethoven wrote as his final gift to the world, his Symphony No. 9, with its powerful message of hope.”

“With advances in technology, what seemed impossible in 2005 became possible by 2018. We invited dancers through embassies, dance councils, and many humanitarian organizations. We looked for three things: A love of their root culture, a love of humanity, and the desire to choreograph to the symphony.”

Dancing Joy: The Film

The film crew traveled from the U.S. to 19 cities in ten nations around the world – on four continents, northern and southern hemispheres, and Oceania. They experienced summer and winter, high altitude and sea level, during the 58 days of principal photography. They shot on the ground, from the air, on mountains, and in water.

Local crews and supporters added their expertise to surmount language barriers, logistical challenges, and weather conditions.

Authenticity was a high priority for the production. It was paramount that they captured the historic and natural beauty of every area, as well as the traditions and movement of each culture, while filming sustainably to protect the natural environment and cultural sites. Multiple handheld cameras, augment that on tripods, to bring the viewer into close proximity and engagement with the dance.

A stunning journey of music, dance, and scenic wonder, Dancing Joy is a reminder of everything that is good in the world. The performers represent the beauty and diversity of humanity. To a world torn apart by division, it brings a powerful message of hope. Dancing Joy portrays the triumphant spirit of all humanity, and reminds us of what is truly valuable.

This film has no dialogue or narration, yet it speaks to every heart – young and old alike. Ultimately, Kate said, “We would like for it to become a family classic—the film that people watch for their special day, their holiday. To remind them of why they love each other.”

Dancing Joy is available for purchase on DVD and Blue-Ray at Makes a great gift! Also streaming on Vimeo.

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