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Boogie Fever

In troubled times, dance! (Or maybe see a dance flick.)

Dorothy Woodend 5 Nov 2004TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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Dance movies are a light way of making us forget our heavy hearts. And that can be a good thing. Or a really bad thing.

I hold a special place in my heart for dance movies. Maybe because Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were always on CBC in the mid-afternoon when I faked gastric enteritus to avoid school. The plots didn't vary much, there were lots of swishy dresses and swishier men. They were escapist, fluffy marabou fantasia. Perfect for forgetting your troubles. If you're looking for some escapism at the moment, and who isn't, dance movies aren't a bad place to go.

You must pick and choose carefully however, because they can hurt you if you're not careful.

Sometimes they're good bad, like Saturday Night Fever, and sometimes they're awful bad like its sequel Staying Alive. Showgirls may come out on top, like Nomi did on Kyle MacLachlan in the infamous pool scene, as the all time worst dance film. You can let out a Nomi-inspired yodeling bronx honk if you agree. I flipped across Showgirls on TV once and was forced, nay, compelled to watch. There is something utterly transfixing about it. I don't know if I could even say what that thing is, except at a certain level of terribleness, one becomes giddy, from loss of blood to the brain. Something similar happened to me while watching Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. So be careful you don't permanently alter your consciousness through the imbibing of bad dance.

Baby steps

Other dance films are of the more arty variety, like The Company, Robert Altman's foray into Ballet Bloody Ballet, or the all-time camp classic The Red Shoes. Billy Elliot was all inspiring and shite, and even Dirty Dancing brought a girlish blush to my cheeks, both pairs.

But there is nothing even deliciously bad or even fun bad in Shall We Dance, you won't find a moment of emotional truth, anywhere, nowhere, not in Richard Gere's twinkly demeanor, or in Susan Sarandon's googly eyeballs. Nor even in Jennifer Lopez, who acts as if she has something rather large and uncomfortable inserted up her famous bum throughout the entire proceeding. The Japanese original (Shall We Dansu) was a sweet movie, all about the life of a salary man, desperate to escape the conformity of his life. In this film however, there is no reason for Richard Gere wanting to discover his own private dancer. He has, even by his own account, a perfect life: beautiful wife, beautiful home, two beautiful kids. And yet and yet, he's still not happy. Really, he should be slapped with a tutu, but he wants to go downtown with J-Lo's booty brown.

If Gere is a potential philanderer, he doesn't do much more than look constipated, and he does most of his best acting by clenching his fist, and holding it up to his face. I don't know what that means exactly, I think it's supposed to register his torment on not being to get any brown sugar off of J-Lo. There are many more cringe inducing moments, from Anita Gilletter (Miss Mitzi) warbling drunkenly, to poor Stanley Tucci, forced to wear a wig stolen from Clan of the Cave Bear.

But they are all upstaged by Jennifer Lopez's left nipple. After all the attention lavished on her other famous assets, the nip seemed determined to also have its day in the sun. If only it could bust through the cloth constraining it. Throughout the film, it kept poking up at weird moments. At first I found it distracting, but after a while, I grew accustomed to it hogging the screen. Like the perky little third face of Eve. When you find yourself watching a nipple more than anything else on the screen you know you've got trouble.

Twist and shout

I felt sorry for all the little old ladies sitting in the audience, who had perhaps come to the film thinking that they might get some Fred and Ginger juice; something sweet and uplifting. Instead, they got spoon fed, not even sugar, but something more noxious, like Aspartane. There's lots of swelling strings and pretty things but the sheer joy of shaking your can is missing.

What's worse, the film presents some pretty tired notions about the politics of dancing.

In most dance films, there is the idea that the lowers classes are keeping it real, they're in touch with their animal nature. They can dance and other stuff related to dancing. You can see it reflected in every film where the stilted white upper class must learn heat from the poor but passionate as a way to establish street cred. In Save the Last Dance, Julia Stiles is all balletic but she moves like Robbie the Robot. It's not until she gets down to some Ice-Cube in da club that she seems to grow hips and a spine. Folk dance may have been something that the peasants did to take their minds off the black death and the fact that the cow died and the crops failed, and it still has that taint of something the lower classes do to forget their misery. Like sex, which it is often, albiet rightly, related to.

Rumba, salsa, tango they all started with the poor and the dispossessed, gypsies, slaves and other assorted raggedy folk, and were passionately performed for entertainment in the ghetto and the barrio long before they ever made their way to centre stage. According to The History of Dance, Rumba evolved out of the dance forms of black slaves imported from Africa and is "essentially a sex pantomime danced extremely fast with exaggerated hip movements and with a sensually aggressive attitude on the part of the man and a defensive attitude on the part of the woman."

Assume the position

In Flashdance and Center Stage, it goes the other way, the poor can leap class lines through sheer ability. It's a conduit between social strata. Ballet with its anorexia and giant penis buns is still haute culture whereas, hip hop is not. In Honey Jessica Alba must choose whether to follow her heart or take her pants off. It is a choice between passion and social position. Speaking of positions, sooner or later, hopefully sooner, it always comes down to sex. Even in the days of Fred and Ginger. In Flying Down to Reno, the pair watch some sexy Brazilians dancing head to head, doing the Carioca, and had this to say:

Ginger: "What's this business with the forehead?"

Fred: "Mental telepathy."

Ginger: "I can tell what they're thinking about from here."

Since dance films often seems to be about 'uptight white' finding their inner funk through the freedom of shaking their groove thang, first they need someone other to bring in da funk. In Dirty Dancing it is white trash Patty Swayze. Sure, he's dumb as a rock, but oowee baby, his pelvis speaks a language all its own. In Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, it's that sexy little cabana boy from Cuba, shaking up the Protestant princess. In Footloose, it's the fornicating Bacon don't you know. In Shall We Dance the carnal in a can is supplied by Lopez, who is all boobies and lip gloss and backside, just waiting to set whitey free with a little horizontal mambo. Even the title, with its echoes of The King and I, in which Deborah Kerr has the hots for the shiny dome of Yul Brynner, who pretty much resembled a glowering penis in silk, recalls the idea that dance equals sex. "It's the vertical expression of a horizontal wish," says Ms. Lopez, so just do it already. But of course, Gere and Lopez never do, although there is one scene where they both get sweaty and pant at lot, but their pants stay on. Even nippie doesn't get much play. Sigh...

Escapism doesn't come easy in Shall We Dance but neither does anyone else.

Dorothy Woodend reviews film on Fridays for The Tyee.
 [Tyee]

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