‘Fancy Dance’ Newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olson on the Importance of Indigenous Storytelling

“Fancy Dance,” in theaters now and available on Apple TV+ beginning Friday, shines light on the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, while also managing to be a heartwarming and humorous coming-of-age story.

That’s thanks to stellar performances from Lily Gladstone and 19-year-old newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olson in the film by Seneca-Cayuga writer and director Erica Tremblay.

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Since her sister’s disappearance, Jax, played by Gladstone, has cared for her adolescent niece Roki, played by Deroy-Olson, while hustling for a living on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma. Spending every free moment searching for her missing sister, Tawi, she’s also helping Roki prepare for the upcoming powwow — a family and cultural tradition — and trying not to lose her to the custody of her white grandparents.

Jax and Roki become partners in crime, hitting the road “Thelma & Louise” style to look for Tawi. Throughout, the Cayuga culture and language are celebrated and explained to viewers who may not be familiar. Roki educates her grandparents about powwow regalia and how a gift of ballet shoes cannot substitute for the experience she will miss dancing there. And while on the road with Jax, she commemorates getting her first “moon time,” a term in some Indigenous communities for menstrual cycle, and becoming a Cayuga woman by ordering everything strawberry-flavored on a diner menu.

“For so long, Indigenous peoples [have] only been seen as caricatures of our culture and our identities. And I think what ‘Fancy Dance’ does so well is showing the reality in who we are,” said Deroy-Olson, a Vancouver-based Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation/Anishinaabe, Zooming in from a family vacation in Paris.

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance,” in select theaters June 21 and streaming on <a href="https://wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-scoops/apple-tv-la-maison-series-rival-fashion-families-arnaults-pinaults-1236469102/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Apple;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Apple</a> TV+ June 28.

The film tackles a serious issue. Data shows that Native American and Alaska Native women make up a significant portion of missing and murdered individuals, but their cases are less likely to be investigated by law enforcement than those involving other ethnicities, a truth now and 100 years ago, as portrayed in the film “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“It’s really difficult to find an Indigenous person who’s not affected by it, who doesn’t know someone, or doesn’t know someone who knows someone. Showing that in this film is such an important thing to do, because so many people are still so unaware of it. They live in North America, and it’s happening around them constantly, and they still don’t know. And the fact that this film has a global reach is so important and so powerful,” said Deroy-Olson, who has also appeared in Amazon Prime’s “Three Pines” and will next film a key role in a Max series.

The young actor is heartened by the growing number of Indigenous stories being told onscreen, and by the success of costar Gladstone, who made history last when she became the first Indigenous woman to win a Golden Globe.

“Growing up, I didn’t have that representation. I had a few movies here and there that I would really grasp onto. I had ‘Smoke Signals,’ which is an incredible film. I had ‘Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarronn.’ I would go to school and tell kids that I was Indigenous, and they’d say, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ And I’d say, ‘Have you seen the movie with the horse? That’s me.’ And that was all I had. So the fact that Lily is such a strong presence in the industry is so important, not only to me, but to other Indigenous kids because it shows that there’s a place for us here.”

The chemistry between Gladstone and Deroy-Olson is remarkable.

“Lily and I didn’t know each other prior to filming. We didn’t even have a chemistry read. We met in the production office for rehearsal,” she said. “But it was this instant connection, and I think that really reads on screen, because we have so much fun with each other.”

The feeling is mutual. “Isabel achieved such a masterfully delicate balance of savvy and innocence that was crucial, and very difficult to pull off,” Gladstone said. “We were all blown away by her.”

The film explores many aspects of womanhood, as its characters navigate the dangers and challenges of life on the reservation, while finding moments of connection and joy. Deroy-Olson’s meaningful costume, a purple jacket with fringed sleeves evoking wings, made from her mom’s stripper’s outfit, helped her get into the 13-year-old character.

“This film talks a lot about the destigmatization of women’s bodies, and Roki finding this newfound life in this old stripper outfit, it’s so beautiful — normalizing and humanizing Indigenous women and all women in that workspace is a through line. And those moments in the film where she gets her first period are some of my favorites.…It shows our culture, but it also shows how proud she is of her body, which is so important for young girls to see. Roki is never ashamed one minute about the way her body works. And she even kind of weaponizes it in that scene with the ICE agent.”

Deroy-Olson didn’t get to keep the jacket, but she did get to keep a pair of denim shorts from the film, which are on heavy rotation in her wardrobe, alongside her vintage cowboy boots scored on a road trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and her collection of thrifted leather jackets, some from her favorite boutique Wild Honey Goods in Vancouver.

She’s interested in fashion — she wore Chanel to the film’s premiere — but hasn’t attended a runway show, and has admired Taylor Russell and Loewe from afar, sharing, “I love everything she wears.”

Growing up in Canada, Deroy-Olson was surrounded by her culture, but never danced at a powwow until filming “Fancy Dance.”

“I grew up a studio dancer, which is kind of ironic because of how we talk about ballet in the film as so different, but I had that foundation from studio dance so I was able to pick up more of the powwow steps quite quickly,” she said, explaining that the two styles she and Gladstone dance might look similar but are very different in their origins.

“We’re both dancing fancy dance, but Roki dances fancy shawl, which is a more modern, contemporary version,” she explained of one of the most transporting scenes in the film, which had a long road to find a distributor.

The film first premiered in January 2023 at the Sundance Film Festival, months before “Killers of the Flower Moon” had its premiere at Cannes in May. “‘Killers’ really brought all of these conversations to the forefront of the media,” Deroy-Olson said. “As Lily has said in interviews before…there was something missing in the stories of our matriarchs, and ‘Fancy Dance’ really holds that space for them.”

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