The Business of Fancy Dancing by Sherman Alexie: A Movie Review

“I’ve had sex with one Indian woman, 112 white boys, sixteen Black men, seven Asian men, three dudes of ambiguous ethnic identity, one really homely guy, and zero Native American men.” — Seymour Polatkin, poet.

I just finished watching “The Business of Fancy Dancing” again and I feel as if this is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It’s about a young American Indian who leaves the Reservation in Washington state to go to college in Seattle.

It’s based on a book by the same name written by Sherman Alexie and begins with two young Indian men celebrating their graduation from high school. Seymour Polatkin is one young man and Aristotle is the other. They are standing with another Indian who just received his GED. His name is Mouse and he intends to go to work in the uranium mines near the Reservation.

This is a story about their lives and the different paths they each take. Seymour is gay and becomes a popular poet who lives with his partner, a white man named Steven. Steven is an Ob-Gyn at a local hospital in Seattle. He always teases Seymour about his poetry in a good-natured way. Much of his poetry is about growing up on the reservation and his friends there.

After the scene with the 3 Indians finishing high school, the movie begins with Seymour talking about how to write the great Indian novel. While he is speaking, he is holding his book of poetry called “All My Relations” and he is saying that “the Indians in the novel should have “tragic’ features, tragic eyes, arms, be a half-breed from a horse culture. The Indian women must fall in love with half-breeds or a white man.”

“Once this great Indian novel is written, within it all the white people will be Indians, and all the Indians will be ghosts.”

All of a sudden, on the screen, there comes a quote that says, “Seymour Polatkin is full of shit.” From a website named “, May 22, 2001.”

Then, again on the screen comes a quote, “When we say memory, what is meant? I remember a rez party house called The 13 th Step.”—from a poem by Seymour Polatkin.

“The Business of Fancy Dancing” does not always appear to take itself too seriously, however, it is extremely serious. Even though it appears light, the story is really dark and tragic. The 13 th Step is a bar on the Reservation where the Indians go to get drunk. Because they can’t afford baby-sitters, they bring their children who wait in the car/truck while their parents drink. The children tease their parents when they come out to check on them and lock the doors of the car, or truck, but their parents don’t come out

until The 13 th Step closes. Ironically, in 12 Step programs, the 13 th step takes place when a newcomer arrives at the meeting and is taken advantage of by the opposite sex. That’s how the story goes and,

unfortunately, it is true. There is also another saying that goes like this: “If you can’t help another addict, please don’t hurt them.” There are various scenes showing Seymour doing readings and being interviewed by a semi-hostile Indian magazine writer. The movie flashes to the future and back to the past.

It shows Mouse drinking rubbing alcohol and making a sandwich by spraying disinfectant on it. Then it flashes ahead to Mouse lying dead and being prepared for an Indian burial by a Native-American woman

while she chants over his body, gently placing his violin (which Mouse played constantly and beautifully) on his body. “Goodbye Mouse Mouse; why’d you take pills Mouse? Cousin Mouse Mouse, Goodbye Mouse Mouse” is part of her chant. She has a beautiful and haunting voice.

In many parts of the movie it shows the various characters engaged in Fancy Dancing—Seymour, his girlfriend, Aristotle and others. Mouse’s funeral takes place 10 years after Seymour left the

reservation. It is his first visit home. Mouse was an excellent violinist and would walk the trails of the

Reservation playing his violin. He was very close to a white woman who loved his music and they would hang out together. Mouse teased her constantly about being “a dirty, stinky white woman.”

At this time Seymour is widely published and financially comfortable living with his partner, Steven who, because he is Gay, has not spoken to his father in over 15 years.

There is a flashback that shows Mouse reading one of Seymour’s poems from his book, “All My Relations”. It tells of a time that Mouse walked into a river that runs through the Uranium mines with a pregnant cat

and the cat gives birth to a bunch of headless kittens. The poem is written as if it was Seymour who walked into the river. Most of his poems are about people from the Rez that he grew up in. The poems are written as if it was Seymour himself that is the narrator of his life. Yet the poems are about the lives of his friends among the Spokane people.

There is an intense scene where they are reading his book and filming the reading; Mouse and Aristotle are getting angry about being fodder for his poems, and Mouse states, “He stole my life, man”. They make fun of his picture on the book saying “he looks like he’s going to cry. Seymour always looked like he was going to cry. Wah wah wah.”

“I think I’m dead man”, says Mouse.

There is a quick flash to the funeral and a beautiful white woman is talking about when she first met Mouse and he played the violin for her. Then he said to her, “What are you doing here “Suyapi”’ and when are you going to leave.” While giving her what she calls Mouse’s evil eye. She didn’t know what “Suyapi” meant and Mouse tells her it means “ugly, stinky, dirty white person.” That Mouse, he was never that nice to her, but he played the violin for her and he held her. She says that she will surely miss that “mean bastard” and you can tell she loves Mouse dearly. 

After that there is another powerful scene where Aristotle is tearing up Seymour’s book page by page and throwing it into a fire saying, “Forgive him, forgive him, forgive him.” When Seymour gets the call from the Reservation that Mouse is dead and is invited to his funeral, it leads to some of the most powerful scenes in the movie. Scene after scene, flashback after flashback, many people do “The Business of Fancy Dancing.”

Frankly, I don’t care what this DVD is selling for now. It’s rare and expensive and worth the price. I watch this movie over and over again.

I love “The Business of Fancy Dancing.” You might think this review is filled with spoilers but this movie is so full and intense that I have revealed only a few of its many treasures. The slow pace of the movie and the beautiful background music and chanting takes the viewer right back to the reservation with Seymour.



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