Monday, March 23, 2009

Dance With Me

Dance with Me posterDance With Me (1998) begins with shots of the sun-splashed streets of Santiago de Cuba, with smiles and Caribbean beats dancing on the air. The scene then shifts to a local cemetery where Rafael Infante (played by the successful Puerto Rican singer, Chayenne) is laying flowers on his mother’s grave in memory of her birthday. Later, when he returns to his home, an excited mailman bounds up the stairs to announce that ‘He’ has written back. The letter is from a man in Houston named John Burnett (Kris Kristofferson) who has legalized the details to get Rafael a job in the US. It is later revealed at Rafael’s going away party, when he divulges to his friend that he only told John that he needed a job, that there may be more to this journey than what’s on the surface. Rafael then arrives in Texas at the bus station and is picked up by the beautiful Ruby (Vanessa L. Williams), who attempts awkward Spanish until Rafael smiles and asks in English if she can speak English. She takes him to John’s dance studio where she works. All the employees are friendly, except for John who is abrupt and unceremonious when he first meets Rafael as he quickly introduces him to his handyman duties around the studio as well as his new living quarters at John’s house. It is clear that Rafael did not expect this kind of greeting from John but he nonetheless is grateful for all the help. Years ago, John had worked with Rafael’s mother on a cruise ship. It is clear that he still has strong feelings for her, which is why he agreed to help Rafael come to America. When questioned about his father, Rafael quickly replies that he is “long gone”.

The next day, Rafael begins his new job at the studio, but is transfixed by Ruby who is practicing with her incompetent partner for the upcoming dance competition in Las Vegas. When she is alone and practicing her technique without any music, he comments that perhaps she should play something in the background so that she is not quite so stiff. Ruby is instantly insulted and retorts that he should stick to things he knows about. Later she is in John’s office and sees a couple dancing on the TV. It is apparent that she has had relations in the past with the male dancer. When John mentions that the couple on the screen have recently split up, she becomes visibly anxious and comments that she wants to get back into professional dancing, after a six year hiatus. Rafael soon proves his worth as a worker when he does a fantastic job decorating the studio for the weekly party, and then shows his gentlemanly morals when he is the only man to tell Ruby just in the nick of time that the zipper on her dress has slowly undone while she had been dancing, much to the disappointment of the on-looking males. As a return favour, he asks Ruby to go out dancing with him. Ruby is visibly uncomfortable at the bouncing Cuban club and she attempts to teach Rafael how to dance with technique: ball changes, counting, stiff arms, etc. When this fails, she retreats to the washroom and then returns to see Rafael heating up the dance floor like had been a professional his whole life. Ruby quickly leaves the club without saying good-bye. The next day Rafael explains that he really doesn’t know how to dance like her because his type of dancing does not use traditional techniques.

Rafael finally hits it off with John when he asks if he can fix up the old beater truck in the garage. To start the repairs, he enlists Ruby to drive him to a parts shop where the two enjoy each other’s company over some Cuban music and food while they wait for the shop to open. Upon seeing people entering the shop, they go in to find it’s owned by Cubans who immediately invite them to join in on an engagement party in the backyard. Ruby enjoys the family culture and she and Rafael even get to have a slow dance of their own. Then, when Ruby returns to the Cuban club to show Rafael that she isn’t afraid of his style, she becomes pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to let herself go into the rhythm and use the entire dance floor, being passed from partner to partner in a fast-paced dance scene. The night is a success and afterwards Rafael walks her to her door, only to be soaked by the sprinklers in the yard. Needing to dry off, he is invited inside and meets Ruby’s son, Peter, whose father is Ruby’s ex-dance partner. Later, as Rafael stands before her, wrapped in a towel and expressing sympathy for her situation as a single mother, their passion is released, but then, just as quickly, it’s repressed as Ruby realizes it’s not a good idea.

The next day, John’s dance partner, Patricia, comes to him pleading to change partners because John has been spending more time fishing than practicing for the Vegas competition. She opts to dance with Rafael instead, who has been showcasing random knowledge of dance while in the studio. John agrees and Rafael quickly masters the moves and he and Patricia enter the competition. Much to Rafael’s disappointment, Ruby has chosen to dance with her ex-partner Julian in the competition. Before leaving for Vegas, Rafael confronts John about him being his father, but John insists that he doesn’t have a son, causing Rafael to regret ever coming to America to look for such a callous man. At the competition, Rafael runs into Ruby backstage, but the two barely get a chance to talk as Julian rushes her away. At rehearsals, Ruby adds her own Cuban flair to the dance moves, but is quickly cut down by Julian who demands that she follow the routine. Rafael and Patricia then give an immaculate performance in their division and win first place; but Rafael is more pleased about the fact that John came to Vegas to watch him dance and confess that he is in fact Rafael’s father. The two quickly bond and Rafael decides to stay in America instead of returning to Cuba. The next scene is the professional division with Julian and Ruby easily making it to the finals. In the last dance, Ruby spots Rafael and visibly falters in her step as she yearns to dance with him again. Her emotions improve her performance and she and Julian win the grand prize in the professional division. At the after-party, Ruby arrives with a large trophy, but a sad face, as Julian wanders off to dance with other women. She is offered a lucrative contract, but simply walks away when Rafael appears at her side and silently offers her a dance. They then dominate the dance floor in an unscripted, Latin dance which shows their passion for one another. The film ends with a group lesson, involving all the movie’s characters, in the dance studio, with Rafael and Ruby as the instructors of the Latin moves.

Dance With Me emphasizes the disparity between immigrants and Americans by casting Rafael as an outsider. The dance studio employees make excuses for him, such as “Oh, he’s from a different country”, and oftentimes Rafael will even highlight the differences himself, by making comments such as “I’m Latin, but I’ve never seen a Latin dance like that” (commenting on Ruby’s stiff technique), or “I’m a Cuban, of course I can dance”. The film bares resemblance to Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights where, once again, the lead Latin male teaches the technique-driven American girl how to get lost in the Cuban beats and let the music lead her. The fact that there is no instance of reverse-gender in these roles begs the concept of male machismo and control, which dominates Latin society; but what more, how Latin society in general has to actually teach Americans how to enjoy life. Perhaps a notable difference between these two films is the fact that in Dance with Me the lead couple is able to start a new life in America, while in Havana Nights the young love must be separated as it can not bloom in the revolutionary streets of Havana; which lends a certain amount of fantasy to the ‘dreams of America’ and a sentiment of hopelessness to the situation in Cuba. The bouncing rhythms and the romantic storylines of these movies may attempt to conceal it, but this divergence of cultures is still readily apparent.

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