PUBLISHED IN THE LONG ISLAND VOICE AUGUST 20-26, 1998
Are you ready to rhumba?
Salsa? Samba? Cha cha? Fox-trot?
Then the fancy footwork featured in Dance With Me should bring you one step closer to those dance lessons you've always been talking about.
It's marvelous fun, and when you throw in the romantic chemistry that's continually smoldering between the film's appealing stars Vanessa Williams and Puerto Rican heartthrob Chayanne, and a decent storyline by first time writer Daryl Matthews, Dance With Me could be the movie that does for Latin dancing what Saturday Night Fever did for disco.
Dance With Me is a movie with legs -- and plenty of them.
The story begins in Santiago del Cuba, as Rafael Infante (Chayanne) enjoys one last neighborhood party before he departs for Texas to work as a handyman for dance studio owner John Barnett (Kris Kristofferson).
Infante's mother has just died, and Rafael suspects that Barnett may be the father he never had. At the bus stop he's met by Ruby Sinclair (Vanessa Williams), who takes him to the studio where he meets Barnett, spunky administrator Jewel Lovejoy (Beth Grant), studio matron Bea ( the comically ebullient Joan Plowright), grizzled instructor Stefano (William Marquez) and disciplined hopeful Patricia (Jane Krakowski).
They're all in training for the world championships a month away in Las Vegas, but it is Ruby with whom Rafael is smitten. She is a professional ballroom competitor and former Latin dance champion who was disowned by her partner Julian (Rick Valenzuela) after he impregnated her, and now she wants her title back.
Rafael watches Ruby practice some complicated steps silently around a dance pole, and asks her, "Where is the music?"
"It's choreography," she replies.
"Maybe that's why you look so stiff," he replies. "The music helps you feel it."
It turns out that Ruby has been shutting off a lot of her feelings lately, but after a few frosty exchanges, the main characters warm up to each other in a romance that teases before it pleases.
Director Randa Haines (Children Of A Lesser God, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway ) has built her reputation on documenting the intricacies of relationships, so where Dance With Me excels is in its realistic pacing of developing friendships, trusts, and romances.
The feelings that Rafael Infante is an outsider in this new world, that Ruby Sinclair has a mission in life, and that John Barnett cares more for fishing than running a dance studio, are well established early in the picture, allowing oodles of room for the characters to grow .
Haines' love for salsa and dance and insistence on authenticity is evident throughout the two-hour film. Writer Matthews is also a professional choreographer who designed most of the routines for the film, along with Liz Curtis. There were also no stunt dancers used in the making of this film, thanks to five months of intense rehearsal -- and all the ballroom competitors you see are real-life dance champions. Even Rick Valenzuela, who plays the bullheaded Julian, is a three-time Latin dance champion and world finalist.
The film is wisely universal in its appeal, as dance sequences featuring children and seniors are cleverly edited into the storyline without intrusion. Joan Plowright's Bea is as cute as a button every time she announces "I want to do that!" whenever she sees Rafael effortlessly lift Patricia above his shoulders.
However, the glaring problem with DanceWith Me is that it rarely focuses on the footwork of its dancers, concentrating instead on the activity above the knees. It's a frustrating blemish on an otherwise fine film.
As for the leads, former beauty queen Vanessa Williams once again breaks any preconceptions regarding her talents with her superb dancing skills and strong acting. She brings the proper amount of strength, resolution and vulnerability to Ruby's character, and of course her striking beauty speaks for itself.
Hispanic superstar Chayanne is a perfect match. The former Los Chicos teen idol, Grammy-winning recording artist and soap opera star shines naturally in Dance With Me as the sensitive Rafael: brooding whenever he seems to have reached an impasse with either Ruby or John Barnett, and lighting up the screen with his zest for life.
In DanceWith Me , zest comes by the bucket.
Even though it wasn't intended, DanceWith Me will probably do wonders for U.S. immigration.
Where else can you be met at the bus station by Miss America?
-- Nick Krewen
Directed by Randa Haines. A Columbia/Tri Star Release. Opens August 21.
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