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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Dancing makes an otherwise banal life bearable ("Saturday Night Fever") but can be awfully cruel ("They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"). It can be humankind's ultimate statement of grace and beauty ("The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle") but can also be a hotly contested sport event ("The Tango Lesson"). Learning to dance can change your life ("Shall We Dance"). In Randa Haines' film "Dance with Me," it is all of the above. "Dance With Me" is a hot, salsa-driven hoofer piece superimposed on a soapy story which you can all but ignore as you get caught up in the pulsating Latin and international tunes like "Jibaro," "Teach Me Tonight," "Arrolla Cubano" and "Adios Santiago." Choreographed by Daryl Matthews and Liz Curtis with striking ballroom costumes by Joe I. Tompkins, "Dance With Me" is directed by Randa Haines in the Dominican Republic (standing in for Santiago de Cuba), Los Angeles, Houston and Las Vegas. The climactic scene in Vegas, the locale of an World Latin dance championship, is a stunner, one which proves that movies can easily compete with stage in the presentation of musicals and dance-driven works. The movie also introduces Chayanne, a Puerto-Rican born heartthrob, a recording artist and TV actor in his film debut.

When novelist E.M. Forster wrote his famous words "only connect," he may not have been thinking about the dance floor as the ideal place to bridge cultural gaps. But Daryl Mathews, who scripted this movie, uses the ballroom studio to show how plain and fancy footwork can bring people of diverse ages, cultures, and temperaments together. "Dance With Me" deals with people who have individual and distinct flaws: Ruby (Vanessa L. Williams), the beautiful former dance champion who has been burned in love, keeps her distance, and dreams of re-entering the famed Latin competition in Las Vegas; Rafael (Chayanne), a Cuban whose mother had died, who does not know his father, and whose only familial connection is with the people of his town of Santiago; John (Kris Kristofferson), a burned-out owner of a fading dance studio in Houston who has a mysterious attachment to young Rafael; and Bea (Joan Plowright), a fun-loving senior citizen who looks to the Houston studio to rekindle her passion for life.

When Rafael shows up at the Houston, Texas studio at the invitation of its owner, John, he cannot help being drawn to Ruby, a dance instructor who has all the right steps but seems not really to feel the music. She, in turn, disdains Rafael's undisciplined but heartfelt style. When the two try to mambo, their distinct steps are as incompatible as their temperaments. At first, Ruby persists in remaining aloof, but she is unable to hold her enchantment with the newcomer at bay. As their affection grows, so does the attachment between Rafael and John, the studio owner ultimately revealing hitherto undisclosed information about their link.

Randy Haines' direction brings out the full intensity of the world of dance, one which is probably unfamiliar to most people in the audience who may have thought that social dancing was simply an enjoyable pastime to fill celebratory weekends. Haines introduces us to the grueling practice needed to feel comfortable in entering the Vegas tournament and the intensity of those who compete partly for fun but mainly with the conviction that winning is everything. Photographer Fred Murphy offers us plenty of closeups of Chayanne, who may enjoy aspirations of becoming the next Antonio Banderas but whose acting at this point is not totally assured. But Vanessa L. Williams proves that a Miss America can indeed be multi-talented. Ms. Williams is drop- dead gorgeous, can persuade the audience that she is a world-class dancer, and ignites the screen with her newly surfaced longings. We squirm in watching the abuse handed her by her gruff partner and former lover in the Vegas competition, and feel a twinge of embarrassment in the way the seventy-something Bea is patronized: a senior citizen who twice insists, "I want to do that do" as she watches the lovely ballet-trained Patricia (Jane Krakowski) lifted high into the air by Rafael.

"Dance With Me" follows the structure of Baz Luhrmann's 1992 Australian offering, "Strictly Ballroom," a spirited musical about a competitive ballroom dancer who outrages his mother and the establishment by insisting on dancing his own provocative steps. With its pulsating music, gifted performers (both extras and principals) and charismatic stars, "Dance With Me" is a crowd-pleaser which just might encourage some viewers to get up and frolic in the aisles.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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