America will once again be invited to the dance floor when Take the Lead opens on April 7th. Starring Antonio Banderas and Alfre Woodard, the film tells a story inspired by the experience of Pierre Dulaine, an award-winning ballroom dance teacher who believed that dancing could make a difference to New York City school kids. The “Dancing Classrooms” program he began in 1993 has gone nation-wide and was the subject of 2005’s Academy Award-nominated documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, now on DVD.
Take the Lead begins one evening in the Bronx when a young man, Rock (Rob Brown, Finding Forrester, Coach Carter) tries to get into a school dance. The principal, Augustine James (Alfre Woodard, Desperate Housewives, Beauty Shop), refuses to let him in because he does not have his I.D. On the street, he sees her car and smashes in the windshield in a fit of anger. A man comes upon the scene as he rides his bicycle home. His name is Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas, The Return of Zorro), a professional ballroom dance teacher who is just starting a dance school after the death of his wife. He picks up James’ parking permit from the ground and watches as Rock runs away.
Bright and early the next morning Dulaine goes to the high school to return the parking permit. As he sits in the outer office waiting to see Ms. James, he opens the door for everyone who passes through. A kid named Eddie (Marcus T. Paulk, Moesha) watches in amazement and tells Dulaine he won’t get any girls that way. The secretaries, however, are very impressed.
After Ms. James finishes speaking with one teacher, Mr. Temple (John Ortiz), who refuses to supervise detention after school, Dulaine asks if he can volunteer to teach ballroom dancing to those very kids. Ms. James is skeptical but gives her permission.
That afternoon Dulaine meets with the kids who are not only skeptical but guffaw at the idea of fancy dancing. Dulaine looks up when he sees Rock walk in and they recognize one another from the night before. Rock sits in a corner and refuses to participate. The kids have attitude – and some of their own moves to teach Dulaine.
Mr. Temple resists Dulaine’s attempts to bring culture to the students by trying to pit the parents against him and Ms. James. But Dulaine wins the students over when he demonstrates a stunning number with Morgan (Katya Virshilas), one of the teachers at his dancing school – and when he tells them they can be part of a ballroom dancing contest a few weeks hence.
Take the Lead is a film about life, communication, and respect, said Pierre Dulaine at a recent interview with faith-based publications. “Kids need to be given permission to be respectful.” During the dance lessons, “Boys learn that ladies should be on the right; this is a position of respect. The students learn to feel good about themselves.” Dulaine tells the story of a fifth grade boy who refused to dance in the early days of his program in New York. The boy stayed in the back of the room and cried. Dulaine let him help in other ways. After four lessons or so, the boy joined in and later became a lead dancer in the community; he and Pierre still keep in touch. “Teaching boys especially how to dance,” said Dulaine, “teaches respect, and it will make life better for women.”
Alfre Woodard, who plays the over-worked principal Augustine James in the film, told journalists that, “Dancing is great. It’s primal. You put music on, and you just go. In tribal dancing, people danced by themselves, but together. In the U.S. in the 60’s, we started dancing together, but alone. People are moving back to “touch dancing”. It’s like a sacrament when you touch one another in ballroom dance because it transforms you.”
There is a scene in the film when Pierre Dulaine, played by Antonio Banderas, tells a parent who wants to know how ballroom dancing will make a difference, “Your son will know how to touch someone.” During the interview noted above, Antonio Banderas said, “this is a family-oriented movie that teaches kids about boundaries. It’s about communication and can be a catalyst for change. You can’t be angry or depressed when you dance; it’s like taking a happy pill.”
Ms. Woodard also addressed the lack of arts programs in schools. “People don’t understand that the arts heal people; dancing affects the brain; there is a real connection between music and math, too …. If you can see yourself dancing, it feels good because it’s natural. If you can imagine it, it’s possible to do it, and it changes everyone’s lives.” Banderas noted that “Kids don’t see money for the arts but the government is willing to spend billions on a war….” He added, “Ballroom dancing teaches self-respect and respect for the other. Kids who won’t look at each other in the cafeteria are dancing together. They begin to carry themselves in a new way.”
Ballroom dancing as a metaphor for life is enjoying a renaissance in popularity that probably began twenty years ago with Emile Androlino’s 1986 Dirty Dancing, a morally challenging coming-of-age story set among differing social classes. In 1992 Baz Lurhmann’s quirky Strictly Ballroom used caricature to reveal a father’s creative soul to his son. Shall We Dance, both the Japanese original (1996) and the Hollywood version (2004) showed men having a mid-life crisis and resolving it through ballroom dance. Save the Last Dance, produced by MTV in 2001 brought ballet and hip hop together with racial issues, growing up, and teen grief. Television’s Dancing with the Stars (ABC) has proven to be hugely popular.
Take the Lead is directed by first-timer Liz Friedlander who agreed with the journalists that while the film is formulaic, it works. She also said that if there is ever a sequel, there will be more sequences of Antonio Banderas dancing.
Writer Dianne Houston said all she did was to “take Pierre’s program and add hormones” since Pierre Dulaine originally taught ballroom dance to New York City fifth graders when he began in 1993. Take the Lead instead uses teens in high school and fuses their hip hop dancing with ballroom, a creative decision that Dulaine supported. Just recently schools have begun to admit the dancing program into high schools. No dance doubles were used in the film.
Houston also said, “Ballroom dance teaches you how to live in the world as a place of respect and self-respect. It’s magic, that special unexpected something that takes over your life. Kid’s don’t recognize or expect magic when it happens.” YaYa DaCosta (UPN’s Top Model) who plays LaRhette, a young woman with a difficult home life in the film, said that, “I got to feel like a princess” during the filming. “There’s so much out there that contradicts the film. What happens at home has a lot to do with how kids behave. A film can’t fix problems, but it can inspire.” Rob Brown, who plays Rock, said that after making this film, “I open a lot more doors for people now and I use my signal when I drive. I think about people more often. I thought I had decent manners before, but after Coach Carter and being with Pierre (during the pre-filming training), I am more aware of others.”
“Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself,” wrote British psychologist Havelock Ellis (1859 – 1939). And Take the Lead makes it clear that ballroom dancing is good for us.