Take the Lead is by no means a good movie. It’s sad that the filmmakers couldn’t see the potential in a story about kids learning discipline, self-respect, good manners, and teamwork. That formula worked in other movies like Stand and Deliver, like this movie based on a true story, as well as the documentary, Mad, Hot Ballroom.
Instead, the filmmakers choose to sex it up – which required upping the age of the kids from elementary school to high school, adding some contrived romance and the accompanying jealousy, and then even some unbelievable gang-related activities. I guess they thought they were being topical instead of seeming stupid. No gang affiliation, particularly if it involved criminal activities and guns, would have been resolved so easily.
In real ballroom competitions, the levels are divided. Beginners would never compete against more advanced students; but then how would they bring in the snobby rich girl? Or better yet, how could they get more dance sequences with the lovely Katya Virshilas, a competitive ballroom dancer?
Antonio Banderas, as ballroom dance teacher, Pierre Dulaine, who cycles through New York in a suit without getting sweaty — a talent in itself — sees a young man vandalizing the car of a high school principal. He decides to convince the principal (Alfre Woodard) that what her kids need is some ballroom dance lessons. She hands him the detention class. They are indifferent until he shows them that ballroom dance, or rather tango, is hot, sexy, and probably the most sensual thing you can do and still have your clothes on and invite your parents to watch.
Banderas as a performer has the kind of physicality that makes him able to perform admirably with real dancers and his humble, understated approach to Dulaine’s character makes one want to be a better person, just to follow his example and make people smile, or rather make women smile.
Yet for dancers, that’s probably less important than what the people making the trailer realized. Virshilas performing the tango with Banderas is the centerpiece for the trailer, because most people long to be that sexy some day. This was also an advantage of upping the age of the kids and definitely helped sex it up.
The problem is that this movie doesn’t show us how to love the competitive spirit of ballroom dancing as much as it makes us want to tango. In Mad Hot Ballroom, the signs were subtle but there. You could see the difference between the shoes in the final competition, and in dance, shoes do make a difference. Yet despite those differences, you could see that teams from lower economic strata could win. You could see the building of a team spirit and the learning of trust and courtesy between partners. You could see confidence building in perhaps the one boy who had no other place in school to shine.
The real Dulaine was a four-time World Exhibition Championship winner who founded the New York City repertory company American Ballroom Theater. With his dance partner Yvonne Marceau, he created ABT’s Dancing Classrooms program.
I’ll admit that although I have the ability to perform ballroom, my affinity is for the so-called nightclub dances — East coast swing, hustle, Argentine tango. Tango is a dance that comes more easily after you’ve mastered at least one other dance and even then, it isn’t easy.
More than promoting ballroom dancing, Take the Lead promotes tango and the best filmed sequences are the tango sequences, even though Dancing with the Stars showed that with some imagination (read this as not made for strictly for competition) you could make ballroom fun, sexy and watchable.
Some of the kids can act (there was one particularly miserable performance that I had to re-watch the video for to confirm why this actor was hired), but all of them can dance.
For tango dancers, particularly those open to learning more showy moves, the choreography and filming of the sequences is well done and the sequences available on the official website make it easy to watch and re-watch and learn some of the moves.
For those who don’t know, there are at least three and perhaps four different types of tango: Argentine tango, American tango, international tango and Taiwanese tango. The first three are recognized in ballroom competitions although Argentine tango, the original style, is under nightclub dances.
There are some movies one sees because they are good movies. There are some movies that dancers see because of the dance sequences, Flashdance was one of them, also with an improbable ending, and Take the Lead is another, although with better actors in the leads.