'How to Dance in Ohio' brings the story of a group of Columbus autistic young adults to Broadway
The story of a group of Columbus autistic young adults has made its way to a Broadway stage.
“How to Dance in Ohio,” follows seven autistic characters as they prepare for a formal dance at their group counseling center. Along the way, they learn how to make connections and step into the world.
“Dance is a metaphor really, for communication and relationships,” said Dr. Emilio Amigo.
Amigo’s Columbus practice, Amigo Family Counseling, and his clients are the inspiration behind the story that has been building momentum for the past decade.
Amigo is a licensed clinical psychologist who works with autistic children and adults. In addition to individual therapy, he offers group therapy that’s social skills based. He calls it "Response Ability" therapy, and it’s designed to promote emotional and social functioning and communication.
Amigo hosts “Friday Night Club,” an evening program for adults where the office is turned into a variety of clubs – from karaoke to video competition to puzzle-solving.
He said for a lot of autistic people, autism itself isn’t the only challenge.
“It's anxiety of not fitting in, not understanding what's going on, how to manage, deal with stress and conflict and stuff,” he said.
That’s where dancing comes into this story. In 2013, Amigo Family Counseling held the Amigo Spring Formal.
“And every week we were working on different aspects with different social skills you're going to need for this dance. And what's going to happen is from a sensory processing standpoint and what are the social etiquettes and what are the psychological things,” Amigo said.
“Dance is a metaphor really, for communication and relationships."Dr. Emilio Amigo
Dancing onto the screen
The dance took place on a Saturday afternoon in what was then Encore Nightclub in Worthington.
Filmmaker Alexandra Shiva had been following Amigo and his clients and captured 240 hours of footage before and during the event. That turned into a 90-minute documentary called “How to Dance in Ohio.”
And, as Amigo tells it, “We didn’t really think much of it.”
The documentary premiered at the renowned Sundance Film Festival and was picked up by the HBO network in 2015. It’s been viewed millions of times – and one of those views was from composer Jacob Yandura.
“I was home by myself one night and came across the title on HBO. And I went, 'I'm from Ohio. What is this?'” said Yandura, who now lives in New York.
Yandura was born in Warren, Ohio and grew up in Columbus. When he found the documentary, his sister had just been diagnosed with autism.
He said within the first five minutes, the film “sang” to him.
“I'm seeing this community and most musicals are about communities – and all of the moments of human connection, you know,” Yandura said. “The how-tos of how do we become independent? How do we connect with one another? How do we ask someone out on a date?”
Yandura and his songwriting partner Rebekah Greer Melocik, who is also an Ohioan from Chardon, set about an ambitious task: creating a musical with authentic representation. Their intent was to cast autistic actors to play the roles – but some people didn’t believe it could be done, Yandura said.
“The whole point of the show is about representation. And it matters,” Yandura said. “And if we can't do that authentically, then we're not doing the show."
The show that started previews Nov. 15 includes seven autistic actors portraying autistic characters. “How to Dance in Ohio” also has five understudies who are on the autism spectrum and other members of the team who are neurodiverse.
With representation in mind, Yandura says the show’s creative team has a saying: “If you've met one autistic person, you've only met one autistic person.”
“And in our show, you're only meeting seven autistic people,” Yandura said.
He noted that while everyone is going through life at the same time, they have different experiences, and that’s reflected in the music.
“I wanted to make sure that they have their own musical theme. And so, in the opening number, the themes sort of all come together,” he said.
The creative team has consulted with Amigo through the process of getting the show up and going. He flew to New York City to see its first previews and he’ll go back for the show’s official opening later this year.
In the show, his character is played by Latino actor Caesar Samayoa, whose credits include the Broadway musical “Come From Away.”
Amigo said the Broadway cast is very neurodiverse, but is also diverse in many other ways.
“And it's the most beautiful ensemble of human beings you've ever seen,” Amigo said.
“The whole point of the show is about representation. And it matters. And if we can't do that authentically, then we're not doing the show."Jacob Yandura
Hitting the stage
While theatre has in some ways changed and expanded the layered story of the spring formal, Amigo said, “It's authentic. It's genuine. It's real. It's true. In every case."
“So not everything in the Broadway musical really, really happened, but it represents something that maybe happened,” he said.
The show began under the direction of Broadway great Harold “Hal” Prince, known for hits like “West Side Story” and “Phantom of the Opera.” Sammi Cannold took over after Prince’s death in 2019, and Yandura says she honors his vision.
The “How to Dance in Ohio” cast is slated to perform in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The show officially opens Dec. 10 at the Belasco Theatre. Amigo said the people who inspired the main characters, and their families have all been invited to opening night. Amigo said some of them don’t think the show is a big deal, while others are very excited.
Yandura said the audience has embraced the show so far – and the goal is to embrace them back.
“I want the show to feel like every audience member just got the biggest hug, you know, and leave with kindness,” Yandura said. “I think we need that more than ever these days.”