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Dance With Me

EntertainmentDanceMoviesVanessa WilliamsKris KristoffersonBars and ClubsLifestyle and Leisure

Friday August 21, 1998

     At one of the many moments of precious insight in Randa Haines' "Dance With Me," Rafael, a handsome young Cuban cleaning mirrors in a Houston studio asks Ruby, the professional dancer he admires, how she can practice her steps without music. It's a routine, honed through repetition, she explains.
     "But dance comes from the music; it tells you what to do," Rafael protests, adding impertinently, "That's probably why you look so stiff."
     Besides setting up the film's romantic conflict, that exchange cues the film's raison d'etre, the notion that true dance is inspired, not learned, and that music is the door to the soul, or something like that. It also provides the film's greatest irony: It's not Ruby who's stiff--far from it, she's played by the graceful, stunning Vanessa L. Williams--it's the movie.
     Haines, reportedly a salsa club aficionado, with a script written by the film's head choreographer, Daryl Matthews, is working on a film that its investors must have envisioned as a serious major studio version of Baz Luhrmann's "Strictly Ballroom." But the spontaneity of that imported Australian hit--the same self-esteem-through-musical-abandon theme that made subsequent hits of "The Full Monty" and "Shall We Dance?"--is missing here, smothered by the script's incessant cliches and Haines' deliberate direction. "Dance" can't dance.
     There's plenty of dancing in it, along with a zesty Latin soundtrack. The musical backdrop for the story is an international ballroom dance championship in Las Vegas, for which the amateurs and professionals at Excelsior's, a small studio run by former dance champ John Burnett (Kris Kristofferson), have just 30 days to prepare.
     Ruby, whose specialty is Latin dance, is numero uno at Excelsior's, hoping for a return to the glory that was--six years ago--when she and her former partner and lover Julian (Rick Valenzuela) won the world title. Julian's still a winner, still an egomaniac, while Ruby's raising their son alone and struggling with a new partner (Broadway star Harry Groener).
     Enter Rafael (Puerto Rican recording star Chayanne), the son of John Burnett's onetime Cuban partner, who's come to live with Burnett and work at Excelsior's. Rafael's got the native beat and Latin heat; you can tell by the tongues hanging out of the mouths of the older women at Excelsior's, whose most rambunctious spice girl is played by a clowning Joan Plowright.
     From Rafael and Ruby's testy exchange on the dance floor, the sparks continue flying between them. But the pain of her last romance boosts her resistance to his advances, even after he shows her the time of her life at a salsa club and, in the spray of a sprinkler system on the way home, does a clunky but spirited impression of Gene Kelly singing in the rain.
     All of Haines' previous films have focused on people overcoming obstacles to connect with each other. In "Children of a Lesser God," it was a teacher falling in love with a deaf student. In "The Doctor," it was two cancer patients. In "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway," it was an elderly pair whose only reason for becoming friends was their shared loneliness.
     "Dance With Me" follows suit, in a fashion. Before they can connect, Rafael and Ruby have to get over some terrible cliches placed in their path by Matthews' dreadfully predictable script. Talk about dancing without music: Ruby's got the my-man-done-me-wrong-single-mama-blues, and Rafael and John Burnett have to work out a problem whose obviousness would embarrass a soap opera writer.
     Throughout the film, Haines treats these banal moments as epiphanies, telegraphing every feeling and thought with annoying coyness. There's so much brooding going on with Ruby, Rafael and Kristofferson's character, a sulking loner who prefers midnight pier fishing to the music that once set him free, you begin to listen for a Latin dirge.      Inevitably, the entourage will get to Las Vegas, and they'll hear the music. But the movie itself never finds a rhythm.

Dance With Me, 1998. PG, for mild language and sensuality. Mandalay Entertainment presents a Weissman/Egawa production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Randa Haines. Producers Lauren C. Weissman, Shinya Egawa, Randa Haines. Screenplay by Daryl Matthews. Cinematographer Fred Murphy, A.S.C. Editor Lisa Fruchtman. Costumes Joe I. Tompkins. Music Michael Convertino. Production design Waldemar Kalinowski. Art director Barry M. Kingston. Set decorator Florence Fellman. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes. Vanessa L. Williams as Ruby. Chayanne as Rafael. Kris Kristofferson as John. Joan Plowright as Bea. Jane Krakowski as Patricia.

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