Dance Lessons: What We Learn at the Movies

Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

With teenagers dominating the movie audience, it’s not surprising that major dance films such as “Saturday Night Fever” and “Footloose” focused on that age group in showing social dancing as a means for the repressed or disempowered to get in touch with their feelings and bodies. Suddenly, however, it’s their parents’ turn: Two features in current release depict lack of dance as a midlife crisis, a spiritually crippling deficiency to be remedied through lessons and constant practice even if it throws a marriage or career temporarily off track.

Masayuki Suo’s “Shall We Dance?” for Miramax Films is set in the glitzy amateur ballroom scene of Japan and Sally Potter’s “The Tango Lesson” for Sony Pictures Classics in the strikingly different environment of the tango salons of Paris and Buenos Aires. The former is a wry social comedy, the latter a bittersweet fictionalized memoir, but both share key assumptions about narrative approach along with thematic links to a long line of dance-film predecessors.

For starters, the two films show hard-working, cerebral, middle-aged non-dancers (Koji Yakusho and Potter herself) suddenly captivated by the art as embodied by young beauties from the professional dance world: doe-eyed Japanese ballerina Tamiyo Kusakari in “Shall We Dance?,” playing a competition ballroom dancer named Mai; curly-haired Argentine tango heartthrob Pablo Veron in “The Tango Lesson,” playing Potter’s vision of him under his own name.

In each film, the dance newcomers endure cordial but essentially fruitless initial encounters with their gorgeous fantasy partners, move on to more mundane dance teachers and eventually sublimate the personal longing that first inspired them to take dance lessons, substituting a passionate commitment to the art itself. Dance transforms their lives and we see the two of them in their everyday work spaces moving their feet with a new, hard-won facility and sense of liberation.

“When I finish work, put on the clothes . . . and start to move to the rhythm, I’m so happy, so completely free,” says one of the clandestine ballroom students who inhabit “Shall We Dance?” The same statement would sound perfectly at home in “The Tango Lesson” and a host of other films that show modern culture hopelessly out of touch with basic human needs--and dance as the way back to a healthy, integrated personality. Sounds like a daunting project in self-realization, but when the teacher is the all-seeing, all-knowing, sublimely humane Tamako-sensei (Reiko Kusamura) of “Shall We Dance?,” nothing could be easier: “Feel the music and just dance for sheer joy.” Quick-quick, slow. Quick-quick, slow: You’d be surprised what changes it brings.


Significantly, the innocent newcomers see the liberating force in dance far more clearly than their performance-obsessed fantasy partners. Indeed, Mai and Pablo are portrayed as seriously flawed in this regard: dancing only for themselves in idioms demanding intimate rapport with a partner. How they deepen when working with a devoted amateur student forms a major subplot in each film--a subplot that plugs into the most enduring formula of dance movies.

Like “Strictly Ballroom,” “Dirty Dancing” and other dance features stretching back a half-century to “Easter Parade” and beyond, both “Shall We Dance?” and “The Tango Lesson” contrive to have the pro or hyper-experienced dancers left without a partner and the clumsy new recruits drafted to fill the gap--with a daunting time limit, of course, to heighten the drama. Suo varies the formula slightly and Potter emphasizes milieu, but both eagerly weigh in with their versions of such staples of the form as the Rehearsal Montage in which the newcomer first gets everything wrong, then improves rapidly and radically enough to earn approval from the resident aficionados.

Right up there with take-off-your-glasses-and-you’re-beautiful, this is one of the classic Hollywood myths: that we could all dance with Fred Astaire or Patrick Swayze or Paul Mercurio or Pablo Veron and hold our own after only a few lessons. Although related to the countless musicals in which talented trained understudies or chorus members suddenly become stars, it ups the ante by making the newcomers unschooled outsiders--the wannabes of the dance world. Pure hokum, of course, but to find filmmakers across the globe adopting the premise for art-house as well as commercial ventures testifies to its powerful hold on our imaginations.

And the trend is far from over, with Randa Haines’ upcoming “Dance With Me” (working title) for Columbia Pictures adding picante sauce to the old recipe. From a P.R. synopsis: “When a handsome young Cuban named Rafael (Chayanne) arrives in Houston, his passionate flair for the rumba, salsa and cha-cha immediately breathes new life into the long-forgotten Excelsior Dance Studio. At the studio, he meets Ruby (Vanessa L. Williams), a professional instructor who is looking for a new partner . . . “

For the dance fan pondering a trip to the multiplex, one of the major questions about a dance film is how much actual dancing (a.k.a. performance sequences) it contains. In “Shall We Dance?,” only beginners dance for pleasure and Mai refuses to join them, remaining strictly a competition dancer and teacher until her own transformation occurs. Unfortunately, this approach allows no opportunity for Kusakari to display her remarkable lyrical gifts until an impressionistic letter-reading sequence near the end. So the pleasures of the film are only occasionally terpsichorean.

In contrast, “The Tango Lesson” may show us too much of Pablo’s dancing--particularly non-tango forms such as tap in which he looks merely glib. However, this overexposure of his limitations could well be deliberate--part of his consistently marbled character portrait. In any case, Veron appears at his most devastatingly intense in the tango duets opposite a coldly proficient Potter, duets atmospherically shot by Robby Muller in a number of locations and edited by Herve Schneid with a concern for movement-to-movement continuity rare in this era of MTV-style image bombardment.

Besides their other similarities, these films and most of their predecessors confirm the public’s increasing fascination with ballroom dance--not merely learning the skills involved, but connecting to a community, finding a place to belong. These days, cutting a rug is not an antique social skill; it’s redemptive, life-affirming and the lowest-risk foreplay imaginable en route to a primal sense of what Mai ends up calling “the splendor of dance when you trust and enjoy.”