Dance with Me Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

Dance with Me

I've always had a soft spot for movie musicals. There's something about the combination of choreography, music, and heartfelt emotions that keeps me coming back for every new incarnation. And I'm not alone. In the past few years, the Hollywood musical has been regaining its popularity, though in a form you might never have thought of. "Evita" and "Everyone Says I Love You" may spring to mind as examples of Hollywood's return to the musical genre, however, the re-emergence has been much more subtle. Well aware of the tastes of contemporary audiences and their cynical approach to seeing on-screen characters spontaneously bursting out in song, the musical genre has been worked into many recent films as musical set-pieces. For example, you could almost consider "My Best Friend's Wedding" as a modern musical-- witness the many scenes choreographed to music, such as the famous restaurant sing-a-long and the karaoke scenes. You don't have to look very far to see other instances of mini-musicals embedded within in current releases-- "The Big Lebowski", "Austin Powers", "The Last Days of Disco", and "The Wedding Singer", just to name a few. The latest film to grace the silver screen, bringing together my two favorite genres is "Dance with Me", which follows in the footsteps of two other memorable ballroom dancing features, "Strictly Ballroom" and "Shall We Dance?" Unfortunately, the original title of this excessively talky and lifeless film, "Shut Up and Dance", is much more descriptive of what you actually get.

Is your father still in Cuba?
No, he's long gone.
Vanessa L. Williams and Chayanne

Rafael (popular Latin singer and television star Chayanne) leaves his home in Santiago de Cuba for the lights of Houston following the death of his mother, and takes a janitorial job at a rundown dance studio. His boss, John Burnett (Kris Kristofferson, who also shows up this week in "Blade"), once had an affair with Rafael's mother, but is completely unaware of his new employee's lineage-- something that Rafael hopes to change in due time. Upon his arrival in Houston, Rafael is picked up at the bus terminal by John's star dance instructor, Ruby (Vanessa L. Williams), and is immediately enamored.

How do you dance without music? It comes from the music.

Much like the opposing character dynamics found within "Shall We Dance?", Ruby and Rafael are juxtaposed with respect to their attitudes towards dance. Ruby is an emotionally-distant woman who dreams of returning to her halcyon days as champion in a worldwide Latin dance competition held annually in Las Vegas. Her approach to dance is very rigid and technically-focused, and consequently, she has lost the passion that she once had. In contrast, Rafael is an 'undisciplined' dancer, completely oblivious to the technical aspects of his dance steps, and relies instead on what he feels within his heart to guide his every move. Of course, you can see from a mile away where this is leading to, which is not necessarily bad. In a film of this genre, you want to see the couple get together and make their mark in the world of ballroom dance.

I hate people laughing at me. I've been left on my ass too many times to think it's funny.

However, what is bad is how ineptly the material is handled. Instead of seducing the audience with the vibrancy, grace, and romance of ballroom dance, "Dance with Me" supplies a slowly-paced and scatter-brained talking-heads drama. The best moments of this film are when the characters 'shut up and dance', and unfortunately, these are few and far-between. Instead, we are subjected to overly-talky scenes cursed with inane dialogue that completely drains whatever life there is in the film. Furthermore, the script does not do a very good job in keeping the emphasis on the Raphael and Ruby relationship-- instead, it unwisely tries to juggle too many subplots. The net result of this approach is that Ruby's character arc ends up coming across very choppy as her motivations seemingly turn on a dime with each scene.

He can pick me up anytime.
Take a number, sister.
Kris Kristofferson and Jane Krakowski

The only saving graces of this film are the dance sequences, which illustrate a cross-section of the Latin dances: the quick-step, the rhumba, the paso doble, among others. However, with the exception of a frenzied night out at a local dance club, the lensing for these scenes is relatively didactic, unlike the artful cinematography found in "Strictly Ballroom". Despite this shortcoming, the choreography is well-done and the dance sequences still manage to be enjoyable. Williams skillfully handles both the emotional nuances of her character and the physical demands of her role, and is a pleasure to watch. Chayanne does not fare as well-- while he certainly can cut a rug and flash a charismatic smile, his unease with the English language shows. Kristofferson is sufficient as the emotionally-aloof father figure, and Joan Plowright radiates enough charm as an affable senior citizen inspired by Rafael's talent, but unfortunately, they take too much emphasis away from the two principals.

You used to love to dance... now it's a chore.

Don't get me wrong-- I was really looking forward to "Dance with Me". Unfortunately, this tedious-to-watch musical-romance puts all the emphasis in the wrong places. Instead of being the crowd-pleaser it should have been, it ended up being a heavy-sleeper. Dance with me? You better sit this one out.

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