Dance-Movie Derby: Strictly Ballroom

ImageTo resume the Derby, since I’m feeling blog rusty, I will talk to you about an Australian film by Baz Luhrmann, Strictly Ballroom.

I think this is a really great dance movie because it deals with a topic that is one of my favorites: authenticity. There’s a great dynamic reminiscent of Trilling’s work Sincerity and Authenticity, which, if you know me at all, you know I love.

Strictly Ballroom deals with artistic authenticity, personal authenticity, racial/cultural authenticity, and the courage to assert authenticity.

Scott Hastings is a talented competitive ballroom dancer, a young man with a bright future. He is the son of ballroom teacher Shirley and retired, reserved dancer, Doug. Though he is poised to be a champion, the actual championship has become less appealing….

The opening of the film is really lush and a testament to Luhrmann’s ability to make the ostentatious pristine. All of the costumes are appropriately absurd. However, the initial shots are done in slow motion to the rising music. This really establishes the external romance of ballroom dancing. The competitors are poised and dramatic slowed down. Once the scene shifts to full-speed, however, the tone becomes much more agitated and less artistic. People are cheering for their favorites. Scott’s mother calls out “Come on 100!” drawing attention to the fact that Scott and all of the other men on the dance floor are numbered for judging. There are no names called, not even by his own mother.

So, at first you think this is beautiful, this is artistic, but then you realize it’s an athletic competition, really. Who can be flawless? Who can meet the highest standards of this highly-choreographed aesthetic?

The film cuts away from this competition a few times to an “interview style” as if the film were a documentary. This is a bit clunky but it establishes further the competitive spirit of ballroom dancing. They explain how a couple “boxed in” Scott and his partner, Liz, leaving them unable to freely use the dance floor. Pretty cut throat!

“But that doesn’t excuse what Scott did!” One of his teachers and old friend of his parents’, Les, announces to the camera crew.

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And then we see it! Scott breaks out of the box (Baby leaves the corner), by using his own steps. He slides between the blocking couple and resorts to his own “crowd-pleasing steps” as Les laments. Apparently, pleasing the crowd is not as important as pleasing the judges, led by majorly arrogant grumpopotamus Barry Fife, the president of the federation.

Needless to say, Scott loses. He did not meet their standards. He did something unique, unexpected. He broke the rules of the game.

So, here is the established problem. Scott goes on to say he doesn’t want to dance old steps anymore. And he doesn’t care about winning the “Pan-Pacific Gran Prix Amateur Latin American Championship.” His mom slaps him for this admission. She fights and fights to push away the idea that her son would not only lose, but not even care about competition. Winning for her is more important than authenticity, satisfaction. Scott says he’s bored with dancing as it is and Shirley announces that she’s bored with his father, but that doesn’t mean she gives up. You stick to your goals!

This is brutal because it turns out that Doug became the meek, passive, sad man he is throughout the film because he wanted to dance his own steps at the Pan-Pacifics but was cast aside after Barry Fife convinced Shirley to dance with Les. They lost anyway. Barry won. Shirley’s betrayal and Doug’s lost opportunity drove him into emotional seclusion. He is not close to his children. Nobody respects him. And nobody in the family is truly happy. They lived their lives in fear.

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These are all pretty obvious themes, I think, so where I am really in love with this film concerns Miss Francesca, or “just Fran” as she introduces herself to Scott.

Fran is “unattractive.” She’s been dancing with a girl for two years at the Hastings’s dance studio. She wears silly clothes, has frizzy hair, big glasses, and acne. Mrs. Hastings sells cosmetics on the side and seems really pleased to take Fran’s money for apricot scrub and makeup. Of course, over the whole film, Fran stops wearing her glasses, puts on flattering a-line skirts and dresses, and her skin clears up.

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That’s not what I love about Fran, though. I love Fran because she is the kind of brave that can only come from adversity. Fran is a Spanish Gypsy and a woman. She, her father, and grandmother live by the railroad tracks.

Fran pursues Scott as a dance partner because, in the wake of Scott’s unwillingness to dance “strictly ballroom,” Liz walks out on him to dance with Ken, the drunken ass who boxed them in at the last competition.

Scott is at first dismissive of Fran and her pathetic appearance. But, in the end, she calls him out on his in-authenticity and cowardice. She is utterly brave because she knows that you won’t get what you want unless you work for it. That’s why she’s been dancing with a girl for two years. She similarly follows Shirley’s philosophy: You stick to your goals. However, Fran recognizes something about goals that Shirley does not: Your goals must be authentic.

Now, I think it’s really interesting that the Pan Pacifics in Australia is a “Latin American” dance competition. There are a lot of layers of removal in terms of the authenticity of these performances. None of the dancers I can see in competition appear to be latin at all. They’re certainly not American. Add to this the fact that white people in Australia are not native, but rather the offspring of British cast-offs.

Yet, you can see how white privilege and progressive economic success can divorce people from their heritage. Even Fran does this initially. You don’t realize she’s Spanish until she announces: “Vivir con miedo, es como vivir a medias!”

A life lived in fear is a life half lived.

Served.

Served.

Boom. She busts her character wide open. She is “passing” in a white culture. As she and Scott dance together, she doesn’t just become more attractive, she becomes less white. She becomes less like Scott and more like who she is really: A Spanish Gypsy dancer.

Scott is very committed to his own new dance moves, but can’t help but be impressed when Fran busts out a step of her own consistent with Pasodoble.

The Pasodoble provides the turning point, the true transition of Scott’s artistic authenticity. He takes the American out of the Pan-Pacifics. Though Fran’s father at first violently rebuffs Scott’s presence, he is overruled by Fran’s grandmother when Scott announces he dances the Pasodoble. He demonstrates it for them and the crowd gathered for the fiesta laugh their heads off.

Why? He’s got no rhythm. The layers of revision, translation, systematization, and organization of the Pasodoble by the predominantly white ballroom culture excised the passion from the dance. Grandma pounds out the rhythm on Scott’s chest, mirroring something Fran said when she first approached Scott about dancing with him at the Pan-Pacifics.

“Dance from the heart.”

Before Scott meets Fran’s family, however, he is at first “betrothed” to a championship dancer suddenly without a partner: Tina Sparkle. This decision is made without Scott’s knowledge, and when Fran flees the scene, embarrassed and saddened by the expectation everyone has that Scott will dance with Tina, he pursues her.

When Scott finds her, he makes it clear that he’s persuaded. He’s tempted to accept the offer. Fran says that he should, that they would surely win.

She looks out from behind the curtain to watch Tina dance a final dance with her partner before he retires. Fran’s expression is not longing, but oddly far-away.

She says, “I could never do that.” Scott is quiet a moment, quizzical, and watches her. Then he takes her hands and leads her to dance backstage.

When you first see this scene you assume she says “I could never do that” because she doesn’t think she can dance that well. However, I think there is subtext. I think that subtext is “I could never do that because it’s not authentic. It’s not what I want. I could never compromise.” I think Scott hears that subtext and that’s why he leads her away from the scene. They dance to “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.”

If you don’t make your mind up, we’ll never get started.

For Each Other

Later, as a final resort, Scott is deceived by Barry Fife. He tells Scott about his father’s extreme talent when they were all young and competing. He lies, however, about the loss at the Pan-Pacifics. He says that Doug danced with Shirley. But in reality, Barry lied to Les, telling him Doug wanted him to dance with Shirley. Barry leads Scott to believe that dancing his own steps will destroy his father. So, he acquiesces and agrees to dance with Liz, despite all sorts of work he’s been doing with Fran and her family. He feels he must sacrifice authenticity in order to be sincere for his father.

Fortunately, Doug still has a spark in him. He still feels the deep yearning for authenticity. And seeing his son perform from his heart ignites him slowly. Finally, right before showtime, Doug reveals the truth to Scott. He never danced at the Pan-Pacifics.

They lived their lives in fear.

Scott’s dome is blown, of course, and he dives off into the crowd in search of Fran. Grandma was awesome enough to bring Fran’s dress just in case, and the pair of them make a grand and unexpected entrance on the dance floor. There is a struggle and Barry cuts the music and disqualifies Scott and Fran.

Dance isn’t about the music. Dance is about the rhythm. Dance is about movement and passion. A steady, rhythmic clapping echoes throughout the room. Scott glances back to his father offering him time, a human metronome. Aware of what he’s doing immediately, Fran’s father and grandmother join in the beat. Soon the entire crowd — the crowd Les and Barry dismiss so easily — joins in.

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Scott and Fran feel the rhythm and continue their number. Nobody can resist the meaning and subtext of this event. Everyone there knows the drama surrounding Scott and his battle with ballroom. In the end, they fall in on his side. In the end, they all recognize the value of personal, artistic, and cultural authenticity. It’s Liz, Scott’s former squawking partner who starts the music back up with a smile.

When the number concludes, everyone goes nuts. It had been a fabulous demonstration of the Pasodoble, and what it means to dance from the heart. Doug leads Shirley onto the dance floor and soon couples flood in after them. The competition is abandoned, and everyone moves and laughs together.

Scott and Fran kiss, of course. They had initially started dancing the Rumba — the dance of love. Scott rebuffed Fran’s obvious attraction once before, reminding her that it’s just pretend. They’re just pretending to look in love.

Pretending.

Look at that brave seductive face.

Look at that brave seductive face.

Scott is attracted to Fran’s Pasodoble. And once they dance it together, they can’t pretend anymore. He can’t evade his growing feelings for a powerful, talented young woman because she has been true to herself all along. She has been stronger and braver than he has been since the very beginning. When she dances a step with her own father, his expression is intensely impressed. He is blown away by the talents of his own daughter. He, himself, is a fabulous and accomplished dancer, and he seems to realize suddenly that his own daughter has inherited and honed the talents of their culture.

With this internal affirmation of her skill, it’s clear that Fran’s physical transformation is a representation of her translation of personal authenticity into outward sincerity. She can be who she is for the world. She can be Francesca rather than “just Fran.”

Once Scott dances the dance of her ancestors, of her family, he can’t help but become part of her, part of that family.

I really love this movie because it trashes competitive culture and undermines racism. It’s a fantastic example of a dance movie because you have subculture and non-whites completely altering the emotional and existential makeup of a competitive white community. Though Scott is a white man, a pilgrim in his own culture playing into some standard, tired hero’s efforts, he would never have succeeded without Fran and her authenticity. Without her and without her Spanish Gypsy culture, he never would have broken through the limitations and restrictions of his own privilege. Despite his desires, he would have remained strictly ballroom.

Muy bien, Fran. Very good.

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