A Letter to Anoint the King of the Ballroom Movies,
When crowning the King of ballroom movies, in the modern era, there are three films that make the grade for me, and they are all different types of stories falling into categories both accidentally, premeditatedly, and with extreme prejudice.
It’s funny when you think about what draws one into a dance film to begin with. It kind of transcends the other types of dance films such as Flashdance, Black Swan, or something like Breaking, Footloose or even Showgirls, sitting out there on the periphery. Ballroom dancing is different in that it is completely accessible … to anybody! As long as you have two working legs and the ability to learn patterns, you can Ballroom dance. Hell, I once had a colleague and good friend that was an older man and cancer survivor when he came to ballroom. Even left with three vertebrae in his neck fused so he had no head movement, he took it up and became one of the finest ballroom dancers I have ever known personally, and was a marvel to see! Such is the accessibility I mentioned. Did I mention there is some magic to ballroom? Well, consider yourself warned!
So, with that in mind, let us begin with “premeditated.” The film that began this journey for me was the original delicate yet boisterous character study of an unhappy Japanese company/family man and his ‘through what yonder window does forlorn dance beauty break?’ In Shall We Dance, after building the courage to enter said upstairs dance studio, our mild mannered accountant learns far more about himself and about the power of dance while sharing it with the characters that pursue it in his class. As he transforms with his gradual epiphany and his family wonders about the changes they see in him, he finally starts to show up on the radar of the dancer in the window. When the confessions do come, the moment exudes such an honest, deep intimacy between these two people in this ethically challenged social situation, it takes my breath away. If only! But when his wife and daughter inject reality when they come to see him in an amateur contest, the resulting fallout threatens to re-immerse him in his shell. Ultimately, it is the simple nurturing of these women that redeem him and affirms the enriched man he has become. He has reality in the end, but it turns out to be all right and not too bittersweet.
From a discussion with a friend about the above film I was set on the trail of our “extreme prejudice” candidate. The Australian film titled Strictly Ballroom is, by comparison to the first, about as in your face as you can get. When it begins with all the petty political back stabbing and seamy portrayal of the Australian competitive dance scene, its nearly enough to make me want to turn away from this strange milieu.
But when I start to learn that the prodigal dancing son is a chip off the block of the strange father and wants to add his own dance elements to the old traditional dances it causes a furor and loses him his partner and clout as a future contender. At this point the film starts to redeem itself with the entrance of the studio wallflower, Fran. As he works with her and she blossoms, her Latin roots and dancing family reignite his love for learning dance. Of course the developing relationship and stark ardor written on her face when they dance puts heart and color into all the encounters they have, and adds that secret sort of knowing where this is going without losing the on-screen impact of the revelation between them when it finally happens.
When the film gets to the final dance that won’t win them anything, I can hardly care about the stupid competition because you already know this is for the love of dance, and ultimately that’s what matters. And oh my, what a final dance. I have to wonder if the crazy, over the top nature of the competitive aspect of this film was done in such a way as to make the oh so sweet connection between Scott and Fran that much more indelible in the viewer’s mind. If it is … it is a master stroke and redeems all for me.
Our final contender is our “accidental ballroom” story. It’s an even more intimate film than Shall We Dance and has a whole range of different approaches to dance. As I pick up the quirky film Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, we meet a tragic Steve Mills on his way to a sacred reunion with a childhood love that goes awry and leaves an unassuming baker on the scene of the accident to try to fulfill his quest and pass along his dying remorse at not meeting the long lost love. Frank the baker goes and finds that she didn’t show up either, but is intrigued by the class, the dance, and a quiet beauty that is one of the regulars. From here we learn he is a relatively recent widower stuck in mourning and stagnant in life, and something about this little dance class works its magic on him and his issues of loss, so that he begins to think and move outside his loss.
Of the three, this one sees far less attention on the dance aspects and far more insight into the transformation. With a great cast and Mary Steenburgen as Miss Hotchkiss the Second and Robert Carlyle as Frank and Marissa Tomei as Meredith, this story of redemption and connection may be the most heart-warming of the bunch.
Drum roll please.
First off, I love all three of these films and recommend them highly. But forced to choose, I would have to crown the Japanese Shall We Dance as the King of the ballroom movies!
What does it for me, upon reflection, is the random beginning to it all, and the wonderful dichotomy between the quiet accountant and the other, often over the top but likable, characters. Of course the dancing is elegant throughout and Kôji Yakusho really brings empathy to his character. But what really shines, in the end, is the confession in the midst of a Japanese society where confession is avoided as a matter of course. That societal pressure lends so much power that you know the direct nature of the encounter makes it all the more rare. That could, by itself, set it apart. But what seals the deal for me is the less than Hollywood happy ending. It feels right and true, despite the conditioning to be peeved at the less than storybook ending. This movie goes for a poignancy that would be the envy of lesser films.
Long live the King, and extending a hand I ask;
Shall We Dance,