You expect a ‘comedy’ to tickle your funny bone so you can walk out chuckling. Yes, Shall We Dance does raise laughs. But - it also raises some interesting questions. The DVD says it’s ‘A New Comedy About Following Your Own Lead’ and a pun like that is bound to appeal to the individualistic age we are supposed to be living in. It does indeed – and yet, what is happiness and contentment? Is it a lovely, loving and loved spouse and all the trappings of a comfortable settled life? Can there be a sense of incompleteness in spite of having ‘everything’? Is that then ingratitude? Should one be allowed to pursue individual goals? At what cost?
John (Richard Gere) and Beverly (Susan Sarandon) Clark are comfortably married. They have two children, and he a good job as a lawyer. Yet, he is not ‘happy’. He fills the void in his life by impulsively shooting out of his commuter train seat up the stairs of Miss Mitzi’s Dance
School after being captivated by Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) gazing out of the school window. A clumsy, shy, reluctant dancer at first, he taps a hidden side
to his personality and blossoms into an accomplished ballroom dancer. All very well, except none of his family is aware of this chrysalis bursting open in this way.
In roughly one hour and forty-five minutes, the film turns all expectations and predictability on their respective heads. With all the action building up towards the climactic Chicago Tattinger Trophy who could blame you for expecting a neatly wrapped package at that point: Clark rewarded for his accomplishment, all revealed and settled? But - it is its aftermath that has much to say. Yes, there is dance as the mating ritual. Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter), earthy, vivacious, loud, generous-hearted, is disappointed at Clark’s treatment of Rumba, “the dance of love”. Paulina with her smouldering, controlled, Latino (stereotypical?) passion sets him straight. Yes, there is the hinted sexual attraction, even tension. But - there are also the bonds forged of friendship, camaraderie and candour. Life and people are given a direction by and through dance. John Clark is able to put his life in perspective, while Paulina unearths a lost spirit to chase her dreams. Beverly, a “romantic” with her sense of romance probably buried under the laundry, jackets at the apparel division where she works and the whims of two teenage children, is very understandably miffed but finds her feet again – and how!
Then again, with the theme as dance and its physicality, you expect sparks between John and Paulina. You wait with bated breaths for the final dance with John and Paulina as partners. It comes but is disarmingly casual. The sparks are somewhere else, the chemistry too elsewhere. And that comes as a happy frustration of the predictability of amorous dalliance. What is not such a happy frustration is the performance of the action’s catalyst (Paulina) - it lacks conviction. True, she needs to be controlled, but control too can have vitality. While Gere and Sarandon are better, the one who really appeals is Link Peterson (Stanley Tucci), John’s office colleague and a closet dancer.
When Link Peterson finds the courage to literally chuck his wig and figuratively his embarrassment and the need for disguise and secrecy, you are pleasantly surprised by the forcefulness of an outwardly meek man. He symbolizes the frank unashamed admission of one’s ‘lead’ that settles all nagging doubts. It is a core of integrity that attracts the coarse, cynical but fundamentally straightforward detective (Richard Jenkins) Beverly hires who can’t help a “Spectacular!” as he witnesses John and Bobbie waltzing.
The film explores relationships – between a married couple, between teacher and student, between peers, between the individual who wants to pursue his own likes and the group that may or may not ‘approve’. Dance becomes the (clichéd?) metaphor for life. Life as perfect when the partners achieve the fluid grace and harmony even as they retain their individual touches, complementing each other, reflected in Bobbie and Clark’s waltz. A sublimity that cannot help but draw out astonished admiration even from a disbelieving adolescent daughter who once screamed at a fuddy-duddy daddy for peeping into her tattoo party.
The stumbling, fumbling movements as the partners try to reach that level of accomplishment mirrors the tentative and doubt-ridden attempts in relationships not to step on toes. Competition dance-related pressures tear apart Paulina and her partner at Blackpool both personally and professionally. Bobbie’s outburst at Vern’s (Omar Miller) sweaty clumsiness on the dance floor
is not dissimilar to Beverly’s in the parking lot showing her hurt at being left out of such an important chapter of her husband’s life. You realize the tenuousness of sharing a life when, ironically, it is a loved share-r of life who is the intruder disrupting the harmony – achieved with someone else - at this stage; and the feeling of exclusion stays till acceptance of supposed “uncharacteristic” individuality. Yes, the film is all about following your own ‘lead’ but it also shows the pleasures and pitfalls of doing so, and the hurdles to finding accord and partners in various capacities.
What should I have said about Miramax films and Director Peter Chelsom’s Shall We Dance? Maybe I should have analysed the dialogues - especially the delightful one outlining the motivation for marrying as a desire to escape obscurity, and the repetition of the key word “witness(ing)” in a confrontation between husband and wife when the latter is nonplussed at not being a witness to a part of her husband’s life. Or the combination of the choice of simple words, setting and expression for impact like the “just me” mouthed by John Clark at the time of registration for dance class that underscores his forlorn loneliness.
Perhaps I should have discussed the way key scenes and dialogues fall between a soundtrack and shots of some very hummable old favourites and dance, or the shots of racing down train tracks that bring home the quickness of life moving on and of that life turning mundane and as meaningless. Perhaps there is something to the fact that most of the scenes are set at night and the darkness or dim lights inside homes visually conveys the claustrophobia, intended or not. The brightness is in Miss Mitzi’s class and on the Chicago Tattinger Trophy dance floor. (In fact, the first daylight outdoor scene is after the fiasco when the need for secrecy and shame is dispensed with). But this ‘review’ too chose to follow its own lead and deal instead with what struck me personally and with the greatest immediacy.
The nicest thing about the film is that it is a protest against the hum drum that represses passion in whatever form, and that it adroitly makes that protest without pontificating. And as the DVD ends, you are still not sure it is the end. The romantic in you, inspired by the way dance and music has worked in so many (representative?) lives has you wondering about the succeeding chapters in the lives of all the characters in the film whose rooms you are allowed a farewell peek into.
Trivikrama Kumari Jamwal