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Dance With Me

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Dance With Me

Starring: Vanessa Williams, Chayanne
Director: Randa Haines
Rated: PG
RunTime: 126 Minutes
Release Date: August 1998
Genres: Romance, Drama, Music

*Also starring: Kris Kristofferson, Joan Plowright, Jane Krakowski, Beth Grant, William Marquez, Harry Groener, Rick Valenzuela

Review by Mark OHara
No Rating Supplied

Just as The Color of Money taught us the jargon of billiards, and Rounders instructed us in the vocabulary of poker, Dance With Me makes us literate in the field of Latin dancing. It's the feel of being inside this specialized community that drives the narrative of the film.

Assisted by extraordinary choreography and editing, the dance scenes occupy a good amount of the 126-minute running time. Their motion and grace pass the time easily. We witness first the informal abandon in the bar in Santiago de Cuba, the hometown of Rafael Infante (Chayanne). Soon afterwards, we are in a Texas dance studio, the walls mirrored, the floor crossed and re-crossed by dancers giving lessons or practicing for the big-time competitions to be held shortly in Las Vegas. The competitions provide some of the most interesting and tension-filled moments. Finally, the scenes shot in dance clubs, reminiscent of the early Cuba footage, highlight the conflict that sparks the film's romantic subplot. Ruby Sinclair (Vanessa L. Williams) practices routines that are ostensibly Latin in design, painstaking in choreography - but that lack the music-driven insouciance of the real thing.

Williams is a remarkable dancer. From her drills in the studio to her twirls before the judges, she shows off her accomplishment. She is quite likable in the role, even when we discover that she is a single mom who is quietly determined to do what is best for her son Peter. This family situation is one of many cliches in the plot; it is forgivable, though, because Williams acts so naturally. Particularly riveting are her facial expressions as she dances: one thinks of Michael Jordan, tongue out and eyes wide, pivoting and darting with stunning sureness. Williams' presence onscreen guarantees the viewer's interest.

Her character's relationship with Rafael builds slowly. She picks him up at the bus station and takes him to the studio, which is owned by the man who is apparently Rafael's father. Working as a handyman, Rafael slowly becomes part of the family of employees of the studio. What takes Ruby a while to find out is that Rafael can dance extremely well - just not how she is trying to instruct him how to dance. Perhaps Rafael's most charming scene has him stranded on a lawn just as the sprinklers activate; here Chayanne does a hopping and stomping routine that nods at Gene Kelly, the simulated rain bringing out his love of life. Like Williams, Chayanne does his own dancing, including the body language that helps to show his passion.

Kris Kristofferson plays John Burnett, who for over 20 years has run the studio and competed in the international competitions. Although Kristofferson is not convincing as a dancer - he really dances in only one scene, and it's generic ballroom - he does a credible job as an aloof but likable aging man. It's his situation as a sudden father, and Rafael's reaction to the resulting behavior, which constitutes the unforgivable cliché in the work. The supporting studio dancers and students are quirky and well-sketched. There's Stefano (William Marquez), the older instructor who plays his ego for laughs; there's Lovejoy (Beth Grant), the seeming manager of the place; and there's Bea (Joan Plowright), Stefano's student, who steals the camera whenever it is pointed at her.

Most of the picture's dialogue is believable. Once, though, Rafael utters the sentiment, "I'm Cuban, of course I can dance." And there are a few too-long pauses, which caused me to doubt the adage, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Sometimes it's better to say what regular people would say, even it's meaningless.

Why should a viewer sit through Dance With Me and maybe even rent it upon video's release? Because of the acting, pleasing to look at. Because of the music, fast and relentless. Most of all, because of the dancing, which does for the viewer what a good book does for a reader: transports her for a time into another, fascinating world.

Copyright © 2000 Mark OHara

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