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Gotta Dance!

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

AUGUST 17, 1998:  I dunno, maybe it's because I just completed my second set of swing dance lessons, but it seems to me there's an awful lot of light-fantastic tripping going on these days. Apart from the whole swing thing (which, even though I've participated in it, I still suspect was concocted on Madison Avenue), we've had a fair number of recent movies looking for love, liberty, and the meaning of life on the dance floor.

Chief among them is Shall We Dance? (1996, PG), a charming Japanese film about an uptight accountant who learns to appreciate life via ballroom dance classes. The story is predictable and, at two hours, takes a little too long to get where we know it's going. But it's a mostly breezy ride. Writer/director Masayuki Suo nicely contrasts the color and passion of the dance studio with the slick urbanity of Tokyo life. The movie was a smash in Japan but also a hit with Western audiences, probably because it offers Western music and movement as a tonic for a culture of stiff formality (it envisions Japan as a whole country of reserved suburbanites). The characters—including the crew of dancehall regulars who crowd the fringes—are likable and sympathetic. There are no bad guys, no torrid romances, just music and, inevitably, a happy ending.

Director Sally Potter takes a much more cerebral approach to dance in The Tango Lesson (1997, PG). The British filmmaker, best known for Orlando, wrote and stars in this self-referential movie about a director named Sally who takes tango lessons from a dancer named Pablo Veron (played by a dancer named Pablo Veron). Sally has writer's block and is having trouble getting her next movie financed. She takes the dance lessons in search of other artistic outlets. Pablo has always dreamed of being in the movies. The way they flirt, fight, and exploit each other becomes the focus of the film, which isn't about dance so much as the creative process and the jealousies that govern our passions. The black and white film could have been a pretentious mess, but Potter has an extraordinarily light touch that keeps it playful even at its most serious. And the dancing—there's a lot of it, choreographed by Veron—is elegant and captivating. Egomaniac or not (did she have to co-write the music too?), Potter is an original—and a classy one at that.

Dance isn't a recent cinematic fixation, of course. Maybe the greatest dance movie of all time is Michael Powell's The Red Shoes (1948), a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's story about a cursed dancer. The melodrama gets a little overheated, but the film's amazing colors and ballet scenes convey not just the pleasure of dancing but also the pain.


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