Courtesy Photo
126 minutes | Rated: PG
Opened: Friday, August 21, 1998
Directed by Randa Haines

Starring Vanessa L. Williams, Chayanne, Kris Kristofferson, Jane Krakowski & Joan Plowright

Saucy 'Dance' numbers keep dime-store romance alfoat

There are only so many places a dance-romance can go, so if you're looking for originality, "Dance with Me" may not be your flick.

A paint-by-numbers cha-cha-cha movie spawn from the likes of "Dirty Dancing," "Strictly Ballroom" and "Shall We Dance," this picture follows religiously the tenants of the genre, relying on such familiar themes as animosity between old partners and the jealous politics of the professional ballroom circuit.

But having said that, I have to admit that while it may not be terribly creative, the Salsa rhythms and saucy romance at the center of this movie had my attention until it started running long (126 minutes, to be exact).

Directed by Randa Haines ("Children of a Lesser God"), the movie's plot -- about a handsome Cuban immigrant (Latin teen-pop idol Chayanne) who becomes a badly-needed breath of fresh air for a fixer-upper Houston dance studio -- is simplistic, inane and wholly secondary to the dance numbers.

But "Dance with Me" has a Latino beat that sets it apart from its predecessors and gives the picture the energy to persevere through its predictability. The music is a character in the movie. It sets the rhythm for the narrative and gives a boost to the flimsy story by pulsing through the characters as their lifeblood.

Chayanne plays Rafael, the new handyman at run-down Excelsior dance studio, who happens to have a little native ability in the soft shoe department. Conspicuously charming and inexplicably brooding, he charms students and staff alike -- all except the studio's disenchanted star instructor Ruby (Vanessa L. Williams), an unreceptive competition professional, stuck in a 6-year rut after breaking it off with her peevish former partner.

As the stock destiny couple, Rafael and Ruby butt heads at first as he tries to Gene Kelly his way into her heart, but once they have a handle on each other's rhythms on and off the dance floor, things heat up.

Chayanne and Williams have a decent amount of spark between them and they share one especially steamy temptation scene with her in a revealing, skin-tight dress and him in nothing but a towel. But it's choreographers Daryl Matthews and Liz Curtis who really deserve the credit for the heat in this film.

There is a certain spontaneity to the dancing here that is reminiscent of the musicals of old, with synchronized strangers breaking into fancy footwork in a nightclub scene and Chayanne doing a classy homage to "Singin' In the Rain" in the sprinklers on Ruby's lawn. It's the impressive Salsa swing that gives this picture life.

But when they're not dancing, the movie is largely gimmicky melodrama lathered with cheap, feel-good sentimentality. There's a subplot about Rafael's absentee father and another detailing Ruby's professional frustration, with her weighing a return to her old partner. And the whole thing takes place against a cardboard backdrop of the dancers getting ready for The Big Competition in Las Vegas.

"Dance with Me" is beautifully photographed, and the camerawork is particularly lively once the movie gets to Vegas and takes you out on the floor with the dancers.

But be forewarned: The last 30 minutes are almost entirely dancing, with only about 12 lines of dialogue in the whole half hour. Director Haines does what she can to keep the plot from grinding to a halt during this extended sequence, but at the preview this week men in the audience were checking their watches repeatedly while their dates swayed in time with the music.

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