When documentary filmmaker Dori Berinstein arrived to shoot the auditions for the New Jersey Nets' first over-60 dance team, she could hardly believe her luck.
Not only would these amateur dancers -- some of them in their 80s -- perform for tens of thousands of rowdy NBA fans, but the NETSationals were to be a hip-hop dance team. This geriatric squad would be rump-shaking to the music of Jay-Z, Fat Joe and Ludacris.
"I couldn't have been more thrilled about that," Berinstein said, chuckling.
"Gotta Dance," which opens Friday in L.A., chronicles the 13-member team through its grueling workouts and the surprising popularity of its first season, winter 2006-07. It was a hit on the film festival circuit last year, coming on the heels of Fox Searchlight's similarly charming "senior citizens-sing-rock-music" documentary, "Young@Heart."
But Berinstein, a Tony-winning Broadway producer who brought "Legally Blonde" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie" to the stage, saw life in this story beyond the screen. If all goes as planned, Berinstein will be announcing an all-star "Gotta Dance" Broadway show by year's end.
" 'Gotta Dance' really came out of my passion for theater in particular, because on Broadway you're surrounded by extraordinary people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, on stage and behind the curtain, who have never stopped working," she said. "I've seen so many other professions where that's not the way it is. I wanted so much to tell a story on film that basically said, 'You should never stop chasing your dreams. No matter what your age is.' "
Berinstein herself was a bit of a late bloomer. The Brentwood native started her professional life as an investment banker and then built a career in film and theater from the ground up. Berinstein spent years as a studio head for Vestron Pictures, helping shepherd "Dirty Dancing" to the screen in 1987 and then later immersed herself in Broadway. There she produced 11 Broadway shows, earning three Tony awards, for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (best musical), "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (best revival of a play) and "Fool Moon" (best special event). She didn't pick up a camera until she was 40.
"I just wasn't equipped to do it before then," she said. "It was a question of being able to have the confidence that I could make a movie. But it was just like everything came together and I felt like I could do it."
The 2007 documentary "ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway," which followed the 2004 season through four high-profile musicals, marked Berinstein's directorial debut.
Berinstein's latest mission -- after she adapts "Gotta Dance" for Broadway -- is remaking the documentary into a narrative feature. She's already assembling the cast in her head to play the risk-taking real-life dancers.
"I'm eager to get [the feature] out there because I think [the documentary] has started to change lives," Berinstein said. Festival screenings have been emotional affairs, she said, with audience members standing up during the Q&As; to declare, " 'I'm going to write a book!' or 'I'm going to learn ballet!' "
Though the film has inspiring moments, it's the dancers and their idiosyncrasies that make it especially fun. There's the 64-year-old kindergarten teacher known as "Betty/Betsy," who surprised herself with her own audacious hip-thrusting at the audition, calling it "a pole dance, really." Though her real name is Betty, at the audition she grew so flustered by the TV cameras that she blurted a fake name, "Betsy," to a reporter. From then on, "Betsy" became her alter ego who craved applause and sexy clothes.
At 74, Peggy, a beauty queen in her youth whose ex-husband left her for a Playboy bunny, drops saucy one-liners into every scene. Fanny, 81, is a line-dancing regular who casually mentions in one interview that she spent her childhood living in the Philippine jungle, hiding from Japanese troops during World War II. After the NETSationals' first performance, Fanny became a celebrity in the Philippines.
Then there's the generational tension between the dancers and their 20-something instructors, women strutting around in size zero hot pants, snipping at the seniors about nailing dance moves as if this group of grandparents were training for roles in "A Chorus Line."
Indeed, the dancers were subject to an enormous amount of pressure both in trying to learn their moves and in doing so in front of a camera. "There is a process of trust that has to evolve," Berinstein explains. "I work really hard to get that. Betty/Betsy was the only one who was very aware of the camera and hid from me the first month I was there. It was a challenge to make her feel comfortable and trust what we were doing."
Pretty soon, though, the dancers were so consumed with learning their choreography that they almost forgot the cameras were there.
Now, the dancers are often treated as celebrities. Audience members routinely ask for autographs. "None of us can get over that," said NETSationals dancer Edie, a 64-year-old children's dance teacher who is featured in the film.
Meanwhile, Berinstein's marketing push is sure to accelerate that fame. She launched the GottaDanceWithUs social networking site that links adults to dance lessons in their areas. In April, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line launched a three-year "Gotta Dance" hip-hop program for all ages on 21 of its ships worldwide. Last month, the NETSationals led hundreds of bystanders in Times Square in the "GottaDance Slide," an event now posted online. And this week, a national "Gotta Dance" competition gets underway for a free Royal Caribbean cruise.
"Right from the get-go I wanted this to be more than a movie, to be a movement," Berinstein said. "That sounds a little pompous, but I really wanted to get this message out."