When Norwegian teenager Vilde Westeng began training to compete in the halling, a traditionally male dance, she was bullied and mocked. "Many people think girls shouldn't dance the halling," she says in the video below, a short film about her quest to win a nationwide competition, despite being just 12 years old at the time.
While she's not the first girl to perform the acrobatic dance — which is meant to show strength, balance, power and toughness — she is one of the first to do it in the traditional way, not dancing it in "ballet-like way."
"I want to be Norway's best," Westeng says.
She's incredibly serious about that aim, practicing almost everywhere she goes. That often means honing her footwork while walking around indoors, for example, or hopping through fields and jumping over streams in the rural area of Telemark, where she lives, to build up strength.
"My family is the most important thing in my life," Westeng says. "What I fear most is losing someone in my family." But that's inevitable for us all, and in this film, the specter of death looms especially large over Westeng's family. Her beloved grandfather has cancer. "We don't have each other forever, unfortunately," her mother says. "So we have to use the time we have well."
Westeng wants to win the national championship in the halling for both her grandfather, who won many halling competitions, and for herself. "I love my life and think it shows through my dance," she says.
The film is not just a sweet story of a young person on a mission, but a gorgeous ode to practice and perseverance, as we see Westeng practicing with her coach on mats in the deep coniferous woods, in front of a sparkling lake in the sunshine and next to a rushing river. In a beautiful montage we see her try and fail, and sometimes succeed — and try again.
The filmmaker, Erlend E. Mo, tells The Atlantic he filmed some chunks solo, taking on directing, cinematography and sound-recording duties himself. “Scenes that demand special needs from the characters, I always do alone,” Mo says, adding that this helps build trust. "That is the only way I can be given the great gift of magic moments between characters, or with the characters alone.”
Mo certainly captures the beauty of Telemark, the loving bond between Westeng and her grandfather, the power of practice, and the nature of grief and loss by both visual means and through the conversations included in the film.
Westeng may be dancing for her grandfather, but she knows she can only do so much. Speaking to her grandfather about his health, she has to admit, "It's nature's way."
He says she's right, and reminds her, "Sorrow is the price you pay for love."