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Take The Lead

I miss the decades when dancing and singing were an integral part of Hollywood’s style. Those classy, elegant days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers produced some wonderfully stylish and energetic films. The best we can hope for in the present age of cinema is the occasional adapted Broadway musical but even those films somehow fail to capture the magic of the music. Take the Lead is by no means a revival of that bygone era of the song and dance film but it has the same sort of sparkle and captures some of that long lost energy.

One night, while returning home from one of his dance studio’s recitals, Pierre Dulaine, master ballroom dance instructor, witnesses a teenager vengefully bashing his high school principal’s car with a golf club. Inspired by what his art might be able to do in countering such reckless anger, Pierre decides to go to the principal of the school and, rather than rat the student out, offers his services to the students. Appalled and amused by the offer, the principal promptly sends Mr. Dulaine to detention. If he wants to help out the problem kids, he can babysit them after school.

At first no one believes in what Dulaine is trying to do, least of all his motley crew of inner city kids. With time, though, he shows the students and a skeptical teaching staff that there’s more to ballroom dancing than tuxedos and cotillion. Earning the respect of the students proves a difficult task, but when his classic style and dynamic precision finally begins to blend with their youthful energy and fearlessness, each life is changed and the results breathe new life into the stuffy world of ballroom dance competition.

A sort of “Fame” meets “DeGrassi High”, the movie is essentially Mad Hot Ballroom converted from its documentary roots to a sensational based-on-a-true-story drama. Mad Hot Ballroom focuses on how the American Ballroom Theater Association, founded by Pierre Dulaine, is impacting New York schools where real elementary school students are taught classic ballroom dance. Take the Lead is the somewhat fictionalized version of how Pierre became involved with a torubled New York high school and how he was inspired to start the ABTA.

No one but Antonio Banderas could have played the lead for this kind of film. An accomplished dancer/performer in his own right, Banderas has the charisma and panache needed to play the perfect sexy gentleman. With a flick of a CD player start button Pierre switches from the cool headed instructor to an impassioned tango dancer, wowing his class and the audience with his dance-floor prowess. Banderas channels all of that and more into a character who loves his dance, loves his students and embraces what each can offer the other.

The rest of the cast are dazzling dancers as well, though their performances are somewhat hindered by the fact that, yet again, teenagers are played by a cast of twenty-somethings. Among the cast is Dante Basco, a 31 year old actor trying to pass himself off as a junior in high school. He might have gotten away with it if I hadn’t seen him playing a teenager in Hook fifteen years ago. Despite having to stretch some serious suspension of disbelief, I enjoyed watching the talented actor/dancers cutting up a hard wood floor, especially when the dancing is cutting edge. Three-way tango anyone?

While the movie isn’t ashamed to let the hip hop factor take stage for awhile, it’s the ballroom style that gets the spotlight. Of course, it goes far beyond just dancing. In one scene Banderas’ character begins to dance with the school principal in front of a group of concerned PTA members as he explains his philosophy. It’s about learning the art of leading and following. A young man learns to touch a woman with respect, earning her trust by proving his ability to honor her. A young woman learns to trust and show her courage by following his lead, allowing the man to showcase her talent on the dance floor. Ballroom offers them each a chance to take charge of their lives, discover beauty and overcome the social shadows they face in a harsh inner city world.

Take the Lead is an enjoyable story filled with great music, incredible dancing and a lot of heart. At times a little on the cheesy and cliché side, it’s still full of unique and touching moments. If only we had more high school movies of this caliber. The world could do with fewer 90 minute long Abercrombie and Fitch commercials.