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Dance | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Nowadays, the missteps really show

`Take the Lead' is riddled with false moves. You can't fool a `Dancing With the Stars'-obsessed public.

April 16, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

"WHY do you want to dance?" ballerina Moira Shearer is asked early in "The Red Shoes." "Why do you want to live?" she replies, and the exchange typifies the momentous significance that films have given to the art.

In the movies, lives change on the dance floor. Fred Astaire wins over an angry Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy begin to notice how good they feel together, Mikhail Baryshnikov seduces the virginal Leslie Browne, John Travolta dumps his partner and his choreographer on the opening night of a Broadway show and improvises his way to stardom, and the resident nerd of the "Harry Potter" series ends up being the beau of the ball.

But somewhere along the line, dance itself got lost in all the narrative strategies. Nowadays, film directors have come to believe that audiences can't get any pleasure from just watching it -- and they don't stop with merely cutting it to pieces in the editing room. No, they make sure their films are structured so dancing becomes some kind of competitive ordeal. Yes, Astaire and Rogers did win a trophy in one of their classic musicals, but in recent years, virtually every film about dance culminates in some kind of life-defining contest.

The newest example, "Take the Lead," returns audiences to the world of "Mad Hot Ballroom," the endearing, pertinent 2005 documentary about New York public school kids learning the fox trot, waltz and other vintage couple dances as an unexpected avenue to self-esteem. There are now some 12,000 students and 120 schools in this Dancing Classrooms program, and soon chapters will open all across the country.

However, "Take the Lead" chooses to fictionalize its subject and milieu, starting with the decision to change the students -- fourth- and fifth-graders from different schools in "Mad Hot Ballroom" -- to one group of hard-line high school teens serving time in detention.

This change allows screenwriter Dianne Houston to pump plenty of sex and crime into the story -- and to replay so many familiar scenes from other films that the result might well be retitled "Mad Hot Movies."

There's the finale from "Dirty Dancing," the cuts back and forth between violence and dance from "The Cotton Club," the blond vixen who turns out to be not so bad from "Strictly Ballroom" and the same crop of delinquents we've been watching since "Blackboard Jungle."

The dance sequences too prove distinctly secondhand. As in her choreography for "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," JoAnn Jansen tries to combine traditional ballroom with an emblematic up-from-the-street idiom: Afro-Cuban in the former feature, commercial hip-hop in the new one. But she doesn't get far -- partly because she's again stuck with nondancers in the leading roles but also partly because she too displays a fatal addiction to Hollywood routine.

The Washington Heights sequences of "Mad Hot Ballroom" showed how the influx of immigrants from the Dominican Republic gave the merengue a special excitement and significance: their cultural identity reclaimed for all to see. "Take the Lead," though, downplays the merengue and any insights about the new kids on the block for the same kind of showpiece movie tango that Jansen and friends served up in the American remake of "Shall We Dance."

Fusing dances of the academy and the street is something that many contemporary choreographers have aspired to, but most fail because of incomplete knowledge and experience at one end of the spectrum or the other. The leaders of the pack have included Alvin Ailey (from his training as well as his heritage) and Twyla Tharp (from a peerless sense of movement structure along with a positively scary work ethic). You can see Jansen's talents in this regard more clearly in "Havana Nights" primarily because her dances there are not ruinously edited as often as in "Take the Lead" and also because the earlier film treats ballroom dancing with more respect.

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You all know the rules

PANDERING to the youth audience, "Take the Lead" portrays teens as infinitely more aware than any adults. And since their dances just have to be the dances, traditional ballroom must be made to look impossibly bloodless and uptight. So it's no surprise that they set about reinvigorating it -- without bothering to learn it properly.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter that they're awfully clunky in ballroom challenges during the inevitable climactic dance competition. Because when they introduce their hip-hop moves, everyone in the room stares in joyous astonishment as if nothing comparable has been seen in New York City -- never, ever.

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