Dance With Me
1998, PG, 127 min. Directed by Randa Haines. Starring Vanessa L. Williams, Chayanne, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Plowright.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Aug. 21, 1998
Original working title: Shut Up and Dance. Given the already minimal nature of the plot and dialogue in this low-budget dance-and-romance trifle, the filmmakers might have done well to heed that titular advice and just scrap everything but the high-voltage dance sequences that are its sole rationale. Now granted, perfunctory storytelling is an accepted feature of the dance-movie tradition. Anybody remember any of the subplots or characters' names from An American in Paris? But even by the humbler standards of Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, the plotting and character development of Dance With Me are egregiously thin. In essence, all that really goes on here is that a good-looking young Cuban guy (Puerto Rican singing star Chayanne) comes to Houston to work for a man who may or may not be his father (Kristofferson) and ends up falling hard for a love-shy American dancer (Williams) who's training for a big international competition in Vegas. Haines, a talented director (Children of a Lesser God, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway) struggles valiantly to flesh out the wireframe-thin script by dancer-turned-screenwriter Daryl Matthews. The major settings of Kristofferson's down-in-the-heels dance academy and the urban Cuban émigré neighborhoods are accurately observed and quite real-seeming. Contrary to what the misleadingly bombastic trailers suggest, Dance With Me's primary asset is not glitzy settings and pumped-up sexuality but rather its funky, down-to-earth locales, quirky innocence, and unpretentious, low-key acting. Chayanne, one of those nouveau hunks who uses sweet, dorky charm to add ingratiating counterpoint to his mannequin-like good looks, is a surprisingly adroit actor with obvious American crossover potential. Williams, never more than a utility-grade performer, is passable in a role that doesn't ask her to do much more than work up a sweat on the dance floor and smolder into the camera with eyes as big and unnervingly bright as those Keaner Kids posters from the Sixties. But again, let's acknowledge the importance of genre context. There's hardly a speck of real story here, yet for true aficionados of Latin-Caribbean dance, Haines makes this overlong film well worth seeing with a series of explosive, brilliantly shot dance sequences that take place in varied settings ranging from residential backyards to palatial ballrooms in Las Vegas. More a savory dessert than a nourishing meal, Dance With Me still offers an energizing burst of sweetness that delights the palate before fading quickly away.