Through synth music and 90s cartoon references, Dena Springer’s short film grapples with growing up biracial in the US midwest

Boys Clap, Girls Dance explores questions of belonging and identity, incorporating some of her greatest cultural interests.

10 May 2022

Boys Clap, Girls Dance is an animated short film that follows Girl, a pre-teen who exists in an artificially constructed world”, explains Chicago-based illustrator and animator Dena Springer. “She’s aware something is changing but isn’t sure how much of it is coming from within her or the circumstances created for her.” This premise is rooted in the creative’s own life experiences; stemming from her realisation that, until her mid-20s, she was “working at places and doing things that would make my family happy, but made me miserable”. And so, with the short film being a result of the creative’s decision to more seriously pursue a creative path, she sees it – both its content and the project as a whole – as representative of “carving out a space for myself”.

The film also deals with the complex emotions Dena experienced growing up as a “biracial Asian girl” in a small town in the American midwest which had “little-to-no Asian communities or resources”. “Ever since I was a small kid I saw myself through the eyes of others and never my own,” the animator says. “The film is a direct response to that feeling – the feeling of never really being grounded in yourself.” This sentiment is reflected in a particularly poignant scene in the middle of the film. A young girl gazes in a mirror, touching her face, seemingly studying her features, before it becomes fractured and pixelated. Large fragments fall away, revealing other women’s faces before the young girl’s face is almost entirely distorted and overlaid. Working on the film for little over a year has been a meditative experience for Dena, and she shares that it has helped her to “conclude” that chapter of her life. “The film has let me let go of those pressures and ground myself.”

Dena Springer: Boys Clap, Girls Dance (Copyright © NarrowMoat, 2022)

Being particularly influenced by “vintage-y, experimental animators” like Priit Pärn and Suzan Pitt, children’s illustrators such as Henry Darger and Remy Charlip, Dena’s film is enchantingly retro. Bright colours reworked with a softer edge, simple line drawings and a slightly disjointed motion style give the film an aesthetic that looks back to a less digitally enhanced era of animation. Originally, Dena tells us that she planned to keep the film purely hand drawn and animated. But, upon making certain scenes she found that they felt “a little flat visually and conceptually”. With the help of her producer and partner, Dena came to the conclusion that adding found footage would create a well needed contrast. A subtle reference to 90s cartoons, “where television shows like Kablam! and PeeWee’s Playhouse were mixed-media and fun,” Dena sees the aesthetic choices as also representing the films central themes. “I feel like it really emulates all the outside voices that had pressured me to feel or be a certain way,” she expands. “I borrow vintage documentary imagery because there’s an instructional and idealised aspect to them.”

For Dena, music has also served as a central component to her creativity, which is demonstrated in Boys Clap, Girls Dance. Having listened to a lot of 90s video game music – from such iconic games as Legend of Zelda – Dena fell in love with the “synth-y sounds” and innovative approach for composition. This love of all things synth influenced the musical decisions throughout the film, and for the opening Dena utilised a Jon Savaugeau’s piece. “My aim was to open up with a vintage, grand beginning, a nod to old 20th century VHS animation.” Following this, throughout the main body of the film ambient DJ duo Salamander’s Crystal Heart plays, its sparse low-fi beat and eerie flowing nature giving the visuals a hypnotic, soporific quality. And, closing with Yesol’s mystical and dreamy Yaksok, the film ends with a contemplative, meditative note.

Soon to be running the film festival circuit, the film is set to be released to the public at some point next year. In the meantime, Dena is immersing herself further in the world of music with the aforementioned duo Salamander, working on a music video for their upcoming single Coconut Warrior. “It’s going to be super cute, psychedelic, and fun!”

GalleryDena Springer: Boys Clap, Girls Dance (Copyright © NarrowMoat, 2022)

GalleryDena Springer: Coconut Warrior (Copyright © Dena Springer, 2022)

Hero Header

Dena Springer: Boys Clap, Girls Dance (Copyright © NarrowMoat, 2022)

Share Article

About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.