Director: Randa Haines
By Marilyn Ferdinand
For decades, song and dance were well-respected staples in Hollywood films, making legends of Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and many, many other talented performers. As the supply of seasoned musical talent dried up with the extinction of vaudeville and hard times fell on both Hollywood and a nation rapidly losing its innocence to televised war and assassination, the movie musical all but disappeared.
While white America was busy debriding and closing its wounds, other American subcultures continued to crave music and dance on screen. Perhaps it was MTV’s music videos, which debuted in the 1980s, that caught the attention of some Hollywood producers, but dance-filled films aimed primarily at the youth market slowly started trickling out of the dream factory again. White faces could still be found in films like Footloose and Dirty Dancing, but the breakout hit and trendsetter of the decade, Flashdance, starred Jennifer Beals, a mixed-race actress. From then on, dance films remained largely an entertainment of minority audiences.
In 1998, the perhaps inevitable pairing of a pop singer with an actress/dancer, providing a blend that film producers could understand and bank on, took place. Puerto Rican singing idol Chayanne was teamed with Vanessa Williams, a beauty queen who was proving to be an effective screen presence, for Dance with Me, an entry in the growing ballroom dance subgenre. The film effectively mixes family drama and love story with street dancing and formal dancing—a combination that made Flashdance such a potent force for audiences. Yet, it slyly lampoons the Reader’s Digest approach to dance (“8 to 80, anyone can do it, makes you feel good”) by drawing a porous, but definite line between amateur and professional dancers that proves to be a credit to both.
The film opens onto the lively streets of Santiago de Cuba, where the sway of music and dance seems to fill even the most mundane of chores. We follow Rafael Infante (Chayanne) to a cemetery, where he lays flowers on the grave of his mother. At home, he regards a letter addressed to a John Burnett (Kris Kristofferson) in Houston, Texas. Soon, he receives an answer to his letter telling him there is a job for him—a favor to Rafael’s mother, with whom Burnett had an affair on a cruise ship. Rafael has not yet told Burnett that he is the father Rafael never knew.
At the Houston airport, he is met by Ruby (Williams), who takes him to the dance studio Burnett runs. Ruby dashes off to teach a class, and Rafael is left to regard the students and employees of the lived-in studio. Burnett arrives, orients him quickly to his duties as the studio handyman and takes him to his home; Rafael will live in a walk-up apartment adjacent to the main house. Burnett declines Rafael’s request to go out for drinks, as he dashes back to the studio. Thus abandoned with his dashed hopes that he and his father would find immediate rapport, we experience along with Rafael the uncertainty of a new immigrant.
There’s no question that there will be a serious romance between the alliteratively named Ruby and Rafael—they simply look too good together—but there is Ruby’s defensiveness after a disastrous relationship with her former dance partner (professional Latin-division dancer Rick Valenzuela) and Rafael’s offensive clumsiness to contend with first. When Rafael watches Ruby and her new partner Michael (Harry Groener—who knew The Mayor from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer could dance so well?!) practicing, he wonders how they can dance without music. Ruby, practicing her footwork dancing around a pillar while Michael takes a break, says, “It’s choreography.” He presses his point that it should be the music that tells a dancer what to do, insulting Ruby’s professionalism. She returns the insult when she accedes to Rafael’s request that she teach him how to dance at a local salsa club, and she catches him dancing quite well with another woman while she was in the restroom. “Why didn’t you tell me you could dance?” she asks him accusingly. “I’m Cuban. Of course I can dance,” he replies, as though she has rocks in her head, “just not the way you do.”
Haines offers these exchanges to set up themes about the dance world that complement the story and make the connection between a love of dance and a love of life. In the amateur world, the joy of the music and communality, such as when Ruby and Rafael slow dance at an engagement party they happen into and a second, more successful attempt at clubbing, help Ruby put her life into perspective. At the same time, the pro-am competition for which studio regular Patricia (Jane Krakowski) is preparing with John as her partner shows that even an amateur can aspire to be the best she can be as an expression of the love she feels for dance. John, who has grown tired and lost his passion for dance, also has a solitary personal life. It is only when he realizes belatedly what he might be missing after an angry confrontation with Rafael in which his secret is revealed that his interest in dance renews.
Randa Haines, director of the highly honored drama Children of a Lesser God, might have been expected to emphasize the film’s dramatic story. But she shows her versatility and intelligence by using the clichés in which the script trafficks as punctuation for the dance sequences, where the emotional lives of characters play out with much more nuance and effect. The stunning artistry of Krakowski took me by surprise. Obviously a trained dancer, she creates a passionate pas de deux with Rafael at the championship that subtly tells half the story of the Rafael/Ruby romance.
When Ruby dances with her former partner in the other half of the story, she spots Rafael in the audience; overjoyed that she hasn’t lost him after all, she responds to the movements he makes in the crowd and imagines that she is in his arms instead. The unlocking of her passion proves to be the key to winning the championship and, of course, a happy, harmonious life with him working for a revitalized Burnett at his dance studio.
Haines’ camerawork is superlative in the dance sequences, which form the majority of the film. She choreographs her shots precisely at the salsa club, seemingly as abandoned as the dancers, yet ending up exactly where she needs to be when Ruby and Rafael, who have been changing partners throughout the sequence, end up in each other’s arms. She does not adhere to the full-body shooting favored by dancers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but there were few times when I felt cheated, so deftly does she move between the story on the dancers’ faces and the movements of their bodies. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Joan Plowright’s dancing in the senior division competition—as studio regular Bea Johnson, she more than showed her chops during her dance lessons—but it was gratifying to see her in the spotlight anyway in an endearing duet with Chayanne. It was also gratifying to see Haines pay tribute to Gene Kelly’s classic “Singing in the Rain” dance when Rafael, caught in a field of lawn sprinklers, cavorts and splashes his feet in a puddle. The closing credits are a short story in themselves, using this normally useless time to show the richness of Ruby’s, Rafael’s, and John’s lives following their final reconciliation at the competition. The film’s editors Lisa Fruchtman and William S. Scharf deserve maximum kudos for their efforts.
Since Dance with Me came out, one film tried to fuse the white and minority audiences—Save the Last Dance (2001). An excellent film that transports a white ballet dancer into the black South Side of Chicago, where she learns to meld tradition with new styles, this could have paved a new road for dance/music films. Sadly, it was not to be. Dance with Me is a wonderful film, but it remains in the dance film ghetto, and its director and performers far from creating this kind of magic again.