You see him across a crowded room and suddenly you see no one else. Your eyes meet and you are drawn together as some inexorable force helps you migrate the maze of people between you. Now you stand face to face and, all at once, you're holding hands. Without a word, he slips his other hand around your waist to the small of your back. You slide your free hand up his chest, around his neck. Perhaps you rest your head on his shoulder or you each hold the other's gaze with locked eyes.
And then you begin to sway, your movements mirroring each other's. Your bodies pressed together as one. It's a moment of primordial connection but, oddly, no one seems to notice. For it's a perfectly acceptable public affair. You're dancing--and so are they.
Encounters like that used to happen frequently, once upon a time, when the slow, romantic dance was a routine part of the social scene. Similar scenes pervaded the films of the '30s and '40s that helped inspire me to become a screenwriter. The opportunity for dance in film was a writer's dream. It presented the opportunity to tell entire courtships, proposals and propositions alike, through body language. They often conveyed with an economy of motion emotions that would otherwise take pages of dialogue to tell. With the convenience of dance at a writer's fingertips, she could hurl the stars into each other's arms, and they would be powerless to protest.
All the way back in the silent film era, dance put the motion in motion pictures. In 1921's "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," Rudolph Valentino seduced his leading lady with a tango that made him an instant icon. A current version was danced by Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in last year's "The Mask of Zorro." Their dance is the seduction that leads to the "sex" of their sword fight. It was dance as foreplay and no words were needed.
But the epitome of choreography as sexual encounter was embodied by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They danced in an era when film production codes mandated that, in all scenes in which couples were on a bed, at least one foot must remain on the floor. No problem. Even with all their feet on the dance floor, Astaire and Rogers' romantic duets were much steamier than most explicit sex scenes of today.
They made love in dances packed with emotion, affection, drama and--that most crucial component for sexual compatibility--comfort. They were indeed comfortable together. Wherever he led, she safely followed, and it raised them both to thrilling heights.
It's no wonder that throughout their 10-film screen pairing, audiences constantly clamored to see them kiss. They got their wish in Astaire and Rogers' last film for RKO, "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," and it became a media event. "They Kiss!" screamed the billboards and tabloids. It was the "Garbo Talks" of its time. But true connoisseurs of film dance knew that they had had their first on-screen kiss years earlier--in dance.
The 1934 gem "The Gay Divorcee" is notable for many things. It contained Astaire and Rogers' first starring roles together. It won the first best song Oscar with its big production of "The Continental." It featured an unknown contract player named Betty Grable singing a novelty number and started a craze for the then-rare Venetian blinds for which we are all still paying the price.
But most of all, it had Fred and Ginger dancing to Cole Porter's exquisitely sensuous ballad "Night and Day" (ineligible for Academy Award consideration as it was written for Astaire's Broadway hit "Gay Divorce," on which this film was loosely based). In it, Astaire pursues Rogers to a gazebo where he ardently sings to her, seducing her to stay. Then, after cornering her with an inviting combination, he pulls her into the dance that establishes them as the ultimate romantic dance team of all time.
At one point in the dance, he attempts to envelop her for a "kiss," but she rebuffs him slowly with the heel of her hand to his chin. The dance "slap" sends him reeling across the shiny floor. (Fred and Ginger always had shiny floors.) Undaunted, he strolls to her again, but this time only takes her hand and the dance continues, growing in closeness and speed as he swirls and lifts her, finally sweeping her over to an ottoman, where he unravels her down to rest.
The choreographic climax reached, Astaire then steps back, brushing his hands in that satisfied, mission-accomplished way. But Rogers just stares up at him, her eyes all afterglow. She can't speak, and neither can we.
Astaire and Rogers were so right together that when they didn't hold each other in a romantic dance, it seemed wrong. They used this to dramatic effect in "Swing Time." When Astaire's character discovers that Rogers' must leave him to marry another, he vows in song that if he cannot dance with her, he's "Never Gonna Dance" at all. Their subsequent parting dance number recaps their entire romance up to that point, "quoting" steps from all their previous numbers in the film.
But there's one devastating difference. Instead of holding each other as they did in the earlier scenes, they now dance side by side, without contact, unable to touch. At one point, they pause and sway with his open hand so close to her waist, where he would usually hold her but now can't. The way Astaire's hand shakes in frustration, expressing all his love and longing, is one of the sexiest gestures in film dance history.
Eventually, they dance up separate staircases to another level, where they finally come together as Rogers temptingly twirls in and out of his arms only to spin away, leaving him alone and heartbroken. Retakes of the climactic pirouettes left Rogers' feet bleeding, but the dance remains one of their best, a perfect example of how the medium could convey an array of emotions in graceful gesture.
In the classic slow dance, there is no below-the-belt contact. In fact, the belt itself is the lowest a proper hand would go, consequently the woman's waist is the erogenous zone of slow dancing. In "The King and I," when the king (Yul Brynner) purposefully places his hand on Anna's (Deborah Kerr's) waist, it changes everything. That's when their waltz really takes off as he sweeps her around the room with total abandon. Richard Rodgers scored the exhilaration and Oscar Hammerstein II's lyrics summed up the allure of dance with its inherent hopes and potential to lead to more:
Or perchance, when the last little star has left the sky
Shall we still be together with our arms around each other
And shall you be my new romance?
On the clear understanding that this kind of thing can happen,
Shall we dance? shall we dance? shall we dance?
Indeed, dance does have its own dialogue and, like the dance itself, the most seemingly benign phrases can be fraught with sexual tension. Many a leading man has tapped the shoulder of some unsuspecting fellow suitor who was dancing with his leading lady and intoned the words, "May I cut in?" The moment she switches partners, we know as well as she does that she is now in the right set of arms. If a couple fits while dancing, it stands to reason that everything else will fit too.
In "The English Patient," when Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) cuts in on Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), their proximity makes them confront the depth of their feelings for each other. The sensation of finally holding someone you long for in your arms, the ache of wanting more and the agony of unrealized desires are all there in his eyes. In fact, his stare is so intense that she dare not hold it and yet cannot look away for long. The seemingly simple slow dance doesn't merely predict the passion of their pending affair, it makes it unavoidable.
The lure of the right stranger cutting in on a real-life dance floor used to be a realizable fantasy. Anyone could ask, "May I have this dance?," and without so much as a handshake you could find yourself instantly in his arms, so close you could breathe each other in. Or perhaps you might find the right fit with someone you've known all along, feeling new emotions with every step. But that was in the days when the standard date of "dinner and dancing" ensured that a couple would have to hold hands and each other before the evening was out.
Nowadays, the second half of that dating doubleheader has been replaced with movies. Instead of standing face to face, couples now sit side by side, lost in someone else's story instead of in each other, their attention torn between their snacks and the screen. With musicals out of fashion, even the chance for a vicarious thrill is gone.
There are rare exceptions. The clever conceit of the scintillating "Shakespeare in Love" is to have the great author imitate his own life in his art. William (Joseph Fiennes) is first smitten with Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) during a dance, and it is their first touch. That scene is re-danced in countless productions of "Romeo and Juliet" for centuries to come.
But aside from period pieces and an occasional film about ballroom dancers, dancing in the movies is virtually nonexistent; in real life, the odds aren't much better. Though swing dancing is great fun and the partners do touch, it isn't mainstream and it isn't slow.
Gone are the dance palaces that catered to close contact. Now when couples go out dancing, it is to a club where fast beats have usurped the slow moves of seduction. No longer do we dance with our partners but at them, standing somewhere in the vicinity of our dates, gyrating as if to show off our wares like some advertisement for sexual Jell-O. In this apparent pre-mating ritual, contact has been displaced by display.
Certainly, this form of dance, too, has its physical appeal. It can be a titillating form of self-expression, a great outlet for aggression and a superb aerobic workout to boot. But it doesn't begin to replace the slow dance of past generations. That's one of the reasons why "Dirty Dancing" was such a success. The only shocking thing about the dances in that film was that the dancers actually touched at all. Set in the '60s, to songs now commonly known as "oldies," it proved how rare physical contact in dance has become.
It's ironic that in the Information Age, the most communicative of all dances has been lost in the shuffle. Perhaps it's telling that in a time of digitally driven contact, even romantic dancing has become self-sufficient as couples dance independently. It's almost as if we've decided we have no interest in partners. We don't want our toes stepped on, and we certainly don't want to let someone else lead.
In "The Bandwagon," Fred Astaire (all dance floors lead back to Astaire) and Cyd Charisse play dancers from different disciplines cast in the same show. In a take on real life, he's an established film hoofer and she's a ballerina. After much trepidation, they decide to go "Dancing in the Dark" in Central Park to see whether they can dance together. They bypass the gathering of couples slow dancing in each other's arms to a small band in favor of an area all their own. There they try a few separate steps before facing each other, he with his arms behind his back.
And then the dance begins, both mirroring each other's moves, growing more elaborate. Soon, they reach out to each other and it isn't long before they soar over benches and up steps, striking fluid poses at dramatic points, totally in sync and at ease. By the time it's over, they know they can dance together, and we know they'll be together because of it.
What are the odds of that happening now, of discovering the perfect fit in an impromptu spin? To find somewhere where you can slow dance with certainty, you'd have to crash a bar mitzvah or some other family affair, only to end up in the grip of a relative twice or half your age. The other films named here are from another decade or place and their stories from another era. But 1997's "My Best Friend's Wedding" put its slow dance in the only place it realistically could for current times.
Self-sufficient, successful career woman Julianne (Julia Roberts) spends the entire film inexplicably chasing a man who is not right for her. (He wants his fiancee to quit college and give up her future career to cater to his. Huh?) After losing the compatibility battle to her beloved's betrothed, she finds herself alone at their wedding--but not for long.
Her gay friend George (Rupert Everett), who has supported her throughout (including in her career), is there when she needs someone most. "Maybe there won't be marriage," he tells her, "maybe there won't be sex, but by God, there'll be dancing." Now in the arms of the man who, it turns out, is her real best friend, she looks, for the first time in the film, truly happy. She's at home with this man who accepts all her facets, and the film fades out on their joyous spin.
The fact that there was no possibility that the dance would lead to sex was not a deterrent to the women who flocked to the film. In fact, it may have been precisely why they embraced the ending and another side of dancing's allure. It presents the chance for intimacy without commitment, an opportunity to get close, but not too close. It's one of the rare instances in life when a woman is guaranteed to be held. Think of it as active cuddling, without the threat of anyone falling asleep.
That being said, the unsaid desires ignited by dance remain a wonderful draw and a moving Rorschach test for potential lovers. A woman might notice the sure yet gentle way a man leads. A man might be intrigued by a woman's responsiveness to his guiding touch. An initially antiseptic fox trot can get pretty steamy when rhythms are instinctively shared. Without dance to instruct, what's a romantic to do?
There's hope on the horizon. United Artists' remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair," due out in June, rewrites the classic chess-scene seduction as a dance. Not only do the leads (Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo) banter and bait each other with every move, there's also a modern-day twist. It is she who cuts in, leaving his original partner befuddled and getting him all to herself. And, as in the original, they end up in "checkmate" as the dance progresses beyond the bounds of the floor.
It's a good sign. If films reflect life, then perhaps the slow, romantic dances of the past are on their way back. Perhaps the world once again will be our ballroom. And maybe someday soon, I'll see someone approach across a shiny floor. As a ballad plays, he'll offer his hand with a "May I?" And if it seems like a fit, and I'm feeling bold, I might whisper the words so many wish they could say: "Sweep me off my feet. Lead the way in your arms. Hold me. Move me. Dance with me."
Screenwriter Devra Maza wrote the film "Childhood Sweetheart" and the plays "Raina's Mirror" and "Best Wishes." She is writing a baseball movie called "The Show."
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Catch up on video with these movies containing memorable dance scenes:
"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," Movies Unlimited, $20, at (800) 4MOVIES.
"The Mask of Zorro," Columbia TriSTar, $20.
"The Gay Divorcee," Turner, $20.
"Shall We Dance," Turner, $20.
"The King and I," Fox, $20; also at 7 p.m. Saturday on the Fox Family Channel and at 5 p.m. Monday on AMC.
"The Band Wagon," MGM, $20.
"Dirty Dancing," Artisan, $15 for pan-and-scan; $20 for regular.
"The English Patient," Miramax, $20.
"My Best Friend's Wedding," Columbia TriStar, $15.