It never fails.
No matter how many times rap songs win the Oscar, no matter how many years have passed since Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were at the top of the box office as they danced the Carioca and the Continental, no matter how many twists, hustles, lindys, frugs, bus stops, bumps, mashed potatoes, madisons, crunks, and funky monkeys have come along since, there is and will always be something imperishably magical about a gentleman reaching his hand out to a lady as an invitation to waltz. Or tango. Or, as long as it’s not debutante- or country club-style, even the foxtrot.
“Believe me,” says the tired and cynical principal (Alfre Woodard) of the embattled urban high school, “The one thing they know how to do is dance.” But that’s not the kind of dancing the man who has just shown up in her office has in mind. He is Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas), and he is proposing to teach her students ballroom dancing.
Even if these kids did want to learn anything from anyone, it would not be ballroom dancing, which they think of as from another planet — they tell him it is for rich white folks, slave-holders. Did Martin Luther King learn the cha-cha? And that old-timey music by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin hurts their ears so much they even agree to listen to him talk rather than have it turned up too loud.
Dulaine tells them that ballroom dancing is for warriors and empresses, that it is about strength and romance. And when they see him do a very hot tango number with his studio’s top student, they start to get interested. And there’s a big competition coming up….
The dance steps are less predictable than the plotline here: gradual building of trust, setbacks, growth experiences, tenderness, the big event. But we, too, find it hard to resist the invitation to the dance. Banderas is simply marvelous, not just in the sizzling tango but in his interaction with the kids and the flinty principal (Alfre Woodard). The story is formulaic and overplotted, descending into a sort of To Sir With Love with dancing, but the performances are sincere and the music is heavenly.
Parents should know that this movie has some strong language, including the n-word. There are non-explicit references to prostitution and there is an attempted sexual assault. Characters use guns and there are references to murders and to drugs and alcoholism. There are sad and scary moments and teenagers who have taken up the responsibility of caring for their families.
Families who see this movie should talk about why the students changed their mind about ballroom dancing. What appealed to them the most? What was the most important thing they learned? Why did Pierre (the real one and the one in the movie) decide to teach the kids? Families should also try some ballroom dancing”> themselves.
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Strictly Ballroom, Shall We Dance, Footloose, and Fame (some mature material). They will also enjoy some of the classic teacher in a tough school movies, from The Blackboard Jungle to Up the Down Staircase, Dangerous Minds, and Stand and Deliver.