During the past two years, between graduating from college, helping my family relocate for my mom’s new job, heading out to graduate school, and moving back in with my parents because of the pandemic, I’ve had to make several big moves. One of the most difficult challenges of moving around so much, aside from packing and unpacking and repacking my DVD collection, is making all of those new places feel like home. Out of all the places that I’ve lived, however, the place that continually feels the most like home to me is the one-stoplight town of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, where I lived for four years while attending Gardner-Webb University. Any GWU graduate will tell you that the university’s sense of family and community is one of the best parts about the GWU experience, and it certainly makes the campus feel like home to many. As a liberal arts university with a student population of roughly 4,300 students, GWU tends to fly under the radar. However, the community’s dedication to one another and their school spirit can make extraordinary things happen, like when the 2018-19 men’s basketball team made it all the way to the NCAA tournament for the first time in GWU history. Now, a group of three GWU graduates, Christian Jessup, Eli Hardin, and Brendan Boylan, and current GWU student Thomas Manning, have captured that extraordinary season in a feature-length documentary, The Dancin’ Bulldogs. Filled with heart and honesty, the documentary is a creative and memorable demonstration of the faith, perseverance, and team-spirit that makes Gardner-Webb such an extraordinary school.
Pulling together a mix of interviews, news clips, and behind-the-scenes footage, The Dancin’ Bulldogs tells the story of the incredible basketball season that put GWU in the spotlight and gave the team members an experience that they will never forget. From preseason uncertainty to the nail-biting game against the University of Virginia, the documentary weaves together the perspectives of the players, coaches, commentators, and the GWU community in an organized yet thrilling way. In fact, one of the greatest strengths of The Dancin’ Bulldogs is its storytelling. With precise editing and a clear map for the narrative, The Dancin’ Bulldogs pieces all of those sources together in a meaningful, cohesive way that is exciting to watch and easy to follow. Jessup’s uplifting score, which highlights the emotional map of the season and brings the most intense moments to life, also rounds out the documentary’s clear narrative. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t watch a lot of sports, and I’ve definitely found myself struggling to keep up with sports documentaries or even simple sports highlights clips in the past. However, I had no trouble following The Dancin’ Bulldogs, which goes beyond the technical specifics of the season to tell a story that highlights the team’s passion, dedication, and determination to overcome the odds. The Dancin’ Bulldogs may be a sports documentary, and it certainly watches like a factual retelling of that historical season. However, its strong storytelling gives it the feel of an inspirational, feel-good fiction film.
The personal and honest interviews in The Dancin’ Bulldogs capture that sense of family and community that makes GWU so special. With each interview, the team members express humility and gratitude, recognizing that they are a part of a community and a team that is bigger and more important than any individual. There’s never a sense of a “one-man-show” or any hint of arrogance. Instead, there is unity and thankfulness, elements that define the Gardner-Webb experience for many current and former students. The Dancin’ Bulldogs truly comes through with a sense of passion and heart, telling a clear story that paints the players and coaches as hard-working and dedicated individuals filled with integrity and love for what they do. For a feature debut, the documentary also shows off the incredible talent and creativity of Gardner-Webb students, and I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing more inspirational work from the filmmakers quite soon.
Available now on YouTube.
**Disclaimer** I am connected to members of the crew for The Dancin' Bulldogs.
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"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."