“Dance With Me” is “Flashdance” for the 1990s, for good and ill. On the positive side, this romance with a Latin beat has a bouncy charisma that’s appealing and infectious. On the downside, the film is unquestionably simple-minded and archly melodramatic and fades quickly from the mind. In popular terms, modest production’s assets prevail. Item shapes up as a solid mid-range performer with breakout prospects should higher-profile competition stumble, and subsequent ancillary play is a recipe for hot salsa.
Pic has a rather awkward narrative structure that frontloads the dramatic plot points, delaying its juicier elements. Rafael (Chayanne) is a young Cuban who’s just buried his mother and, coincidentally (or not), is about to go to Houston to meet his father (Kris Kristofferson) for the first time. Unbeknownst to him, his papa is unaware of the biological connection, and Rafael doesn’t quite know how to break the news.
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John Burnett (Kristofferson) runs the low-rent Excelsior Dance Studio and used to instruct on cruise ships where Rafael’s mother was a chanteuse. He gives the young man a handyman job and a cot in deference to his mother’s memory.
As luck would have it, the Cuban arrives with the World Open Dance competition in Las Vegas just a month away. The denizens of the studio are so consumed with preparing their routines, his arrival goes virtually unnoticed. And, predictably, he accidentally reveals his natural talent for swaying hypnotically to any beat. The sparks fly on the floor and with Ruby (Vanessa L. Williams), the company’s best hope for a prize in the Vegas sweepstakes.
In Daryl Matthews’ screenplay, the familiar scenario’s deviations from the norm neither elevate nor capsize the essence of the yarn. It’s initially a surprise that Rafael and Ruby don’t become dance partners. Rather, he teams with Patricia (Jane Krakowski) when Burnett becomes indifferent to the competition, a twist that pays off.
The strength of the piece largely comes from the adroit direction of Randa Haines, a professed off-camera dance freak. She uses the serviceable script to move the picture from one dance sequence to the next, creating inventive ways of capturing the elegant and sexually charged movements.
The filmmakers’ passion is rightly in the dance, and not in the more conventional narrative. It’s predestined that the principals will somehow find a way to make their relationship work and that father and son will forge a bond despite the older man’s initial resistance. The real creative opportunities lie in visual and choreographic options, and Haines doesn’t miss a beat in either department.
What’s particularly compelling about the dance numbers is the manner in which they’ve been integrated into the plot. The exhilaration resonates when the lovers step out at a dance club, the eroticism is palpable in the studio, and the humor is apparent both in the competition and when, caught in a sprinkler system, Rafael does a Gene Kelly homage.
It’s all lovingly captured in the fluid sweep of Fred Murphy’s camera and the borderline-garish production design of Waldemar Kalinowski. And despite pic’s longish running time, there’s a crispness to the pace in Lisa Fruchtman’s editing.
Chayanne, a popular Latino singer, has a boyish charm that’s disarming even without a microphone in his hand. He’s nicely matched with Williams, an icier presence who cannot help but melt when he smiles. “Dance With Me” relies more on personality than on acting, and so Kristofferson and kindly, warm Joan Plowright recycle past personae that provide a deft shorthand for the drama among the picture’s more rhythmic and pleasing steps.