In "Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dance and Charm School," Mary Steenburgen's character instructs students that dancing is powerful, but "one must shoulder its challenges with intrepid countenance before one can reap its rewards."
The actress' biggest challenge was actually faking her level of dance skill. Steenburgen plays Marienne Hotchkiss, the teacher at an old-fashioned Pasadena dance school. In real life, she claims very little dancing experience except for a childhood cha-cha contest for which she won a plastic trophy.
Unfortunately, Steenburgen only had a week to train for four dance sequences before the accelerated shooting schedule on the film began.
"I had made a commitment to be in Arkansas," she says. "So, Mary Murphy, who is a former national ballroom dancing champion, very kindly flew to Little Rock and in between my speaking engagements we danced and worked together. We trained for a week and then we had an hour and a half to shoot the most difficult dance sequence, which is the lindy hop. I wouldn't have minded another month [to prepare]."
The lindy hop is the first dance her character teaches protagonist Frank (Robert Carlyle), a grieving widower who only attends the school to fulfill the dying wish of a stranger. At Marilyn Hotchkiss, he discovers other lost people like himself, brought together by the joy of dance. Among them is the mousy Meredith (Marisa Tomei), arrogant Randall (Donnie Wahlberg) and amorous Tina (Sonia Braga).
The actors' limited dance training actually may have been for the best, considering the characters' humble backgrounds.
"These weren't people who had done really well at championships or anything like that, including the teacher," explains Steenburgen. "This was about people in this funny little forgotten, dusty ballroom who came together out of their loneliness and tried to find a way to start living again. There's a difference between just loving to dance and being extraordinary."
Steenburgen's character also has issues to work through on the dance floor. As the heir to her mom's modest dance empire, Marienne still conducts classes just like her mother did 40 years ago. She enters through a curtain, gives a brief formal introduction (in which she apologizes for her mother not being present), tells the students to separate by gender and then cues the music.
"She's just one of these people who had a mother who, for whatever reason, was the star of the family, and she always lived in her shadow," says Steenburgen. "There was never any question if she would work for her mother and take over eventually in this place. Her mother is so important and so big and dominant in her life, Marienne still talks about her like she's going to walk through the door at any minute -- but she's been dead for a good 20 years."
Eventually, she learns to be herself, thanks to her students.
"Part of it is Randall sort of challenging her ... and seeing that people are responding to her teaching," says the actress. "That's not her mother, that's her. So it's her little journey."
"Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School" opens in limited release Friday, March 31 and expands progressively wider throughout April.