How Native Culture Inspired ‘Fancy Dance’s’ Set Design Details

Familiarity was at the heart of Erica Tremblay’s storytelling for AppleTV+’s “Fancy Dance.”

“Dark Winds” and “Reservations Dog” director Tremblay (Seneca–Cayuga) wanted to work with people she loved, and her friends. That included casting Oscar-nominated actress Lily Gladstone, who had starred in the short “Little Chief,” as her lead. Tremblay also wanted familiarity with the details of her sets, so she called on set decorator Tafv Sampson to help.

Set on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma, the film (in theaters now and streaming June 28 on AppleTV+) follows Gladstone as Jax, a woman left in charge of caring for her young niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson). And while the two have a special bond — Jax is helping Roki prepare for an upcoming powwow — Jax has also been looking for her sister and Roki’s mother who has gone missing on the reservation.

In telling the story, the family home was an important part of the storyline — it’s where Tawi, Roki and Jax all dwell. But it wasn’t just any home: Tremblay wanted it to have a specific detail.

Growing up, Tremblay recalled, “In the homes of the folks that I grew up with, specifically Native people, all the homes had an artery-like central hallway and then they had the rooms that come off the side.”

But that specificity was near impossible to find during the location scout until Sampson suggested her aunt’s house.

The Sperry home was exactly what Tremblay had in mind. Sampson stepped in and put up wood paneling from the 1980s and added in a thick brown carpet to date the home a bit.

Tawi’s purple bedroom represented family to both Roki and Jax. Said Sampson, “We had a local artist Tricia Fields make a star blanket that we put on the wall.” She added, “Yellow meant safety, so we’d hide hints of tonal things that translated to that emotion.”

Tremblay also wanted to show this was also a house of creative women, so Sampson sprinkled elements of that all around the house.

In one particular scene, Roki is at the family sewing machine putting her powwow outfit together. So Tremblay drew on what she knew. She said, “I grew up with lots of sewing machines, and you’re creating spaces that feel like home.” Tremblay added the areas weren’t messy, but deliberate and again a reflection of what she had experienced growing up. “Every area around the sewing machine was in motion whether it was something that had been worked on recently or had been sitting there for four years,” she says.

Sampson notes each detail was carefully curated with items that had meaning. A child’s drawing on the fridge came from the 1990s and was drawn by a family member. Said Sampson, “We were trying to show the crafts through the ages such as beading and origami. The idea was, ‘This is something she made when she was six years old. And now, here’s something she made as a 12-year-old.’”

The sewing machine and its surrounding area showed a house of creative women.

Another personal touch was the wind chime.

Growing up, Tremblay’s mother hung a windchime above every doorway as a security alert system. “If you live there you know to go around the wind chime, but if you’re a burglar or someone that is not supposed to be there, you’re going to run into the wind chime.” And so Sampson added in the wind chime detail on the back door.

The finale shows Jax and Roki at the powwow, which shot at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City.

Even that held special meaning. Rather than shoot at an actual powwow, the production recreated the entire sequence using real vendors and worked with local artisans.

Artist Joe Chamberlain had designed a Pendleton blanket called “Never Alone.” Tremblay hung it in the background as the girls were dancing. “He passed away right before we started shooting, so he never got to see his blanket, but just knowing where it came from and the person behind it, you can’t fake that stuff, and so many people know what it means,” Tremblay said.

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