Dead Can Dance

Washington City Paper | April 7, 2006
All right, we get it: Dancing can change lives. But all of those filmmakers who insist on the efficacy of footwork aren’t talking about any old slapdash, booze-fueled booty-shakin’. No, the kind of movement that’s apparently better than therapy requires an instructor, good posture, and an unlikely partner/initially unwilling student or five—at least according to, let’s see, Strictly Ballroom, Mad Hot Ballroom, and the recently released one-can-love-again weepie Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School. Oh, and this week’s Take the Lead. Released not even a year after Mad Hot, director Liz Friedlander’s feature debut is a fictionalized version of that doc’s story. The children are now high-schoolers and Pierre Dulaine, the co-founder of the company that began New York City’s Dancing Classrooms program in 1994, is now Antonio Banderas. Other than those tweaks, scripter Dianne Houston keeps the MO of the new movie pretty much the same as the original’s: Take a handful of inner-city kids from troubled households, add an optimistic and persistent dance teacher, and stand back to watch the students get gooey over the foxtrot and, if we’re lucky, one another.

The fact that the program’s pretweeners, at least as depicted in Mad Hot, were still mostly living in cootie country was probably no small influence in the decision to make another tweak: to shift Take the Lead into the world of raging hormones. And attitudes: The handful of kids who get their old-fashioned groove on here are the ones in apparently long-standing detention at an out-of-control public school. After Pierre sees Rock (Rob Brown) vandalizing jaded principal Augustine James’ car, he goes to her with an offer to give a little attention to the students who need it most. James (Alfre Woodard), of course, laughs at him when he says he wants to teach ballroom dancing, but she also doesn’t have anyone willing to proctor detention, so she lets Pierre at ’em—with a bet that he won’t be back the next day.

If you can’t guess exactly what’s coming, you’ve obviously never seen a dancing movie before—or any movie, really. But let’s put predictability aside for a minute: Banderas is suave, the script is sometimes funny, and the kids are good-lookin’. (Except, naturally, for the token oddballs: In Hollywood, overweight teen + tiny partner = big laffs.) The film also handles some of its Important Issues fairly well, such as the one related to the tragedy that Rock and Lahrette (Yaya DaCosta, a runner-up on America’s Next Top Model) are reminded of whenever they see each other in school, only to go home to screwed-up parents and less-than-conducive studying environments.

And then there’s the dancing, which in the end is all that really matters. Though it’s completely unbelievable that the students become masters of, for example, the tango in the undefined period during which Pierre instructs them, choreographer JoAnn Jansen (who also worked on Marilyn Hotchkiss) and Friedlander (who’s, surprise, done duty as a music-video director) make the kids’ movements thrilling whether they’re casually showing off in the style they know or showing off their ballroom skills in competition. In the film’s one interesting twist, the students creatively mash-up their favored hip-hop moves and music with Pierre’s old-school torch songs, which results in a rather steamy three-way tango in the final dance-off. It’s also an unrealistic allowance in a competition run—and participated in by monocled martini drinkers. But if you’ve worked to suspend your belief this far, you might as well enjoy the party.

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