Strictly Ballroom

Released:  1992

Cast:  Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, Bill Hunter, Antonio Vargas, Armonia Benedito, Pat Thomson, Barry Otto, Gia Carides, Peter Whitford

SUMMARY:  Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) is an Australian ballroom dancer whose career is on the rise.  However, during one competition he begins making up his own steps, causing both he and his partner to be disqualified by Barney Fife (Bill Hunter), the president of the Australian Dancing Federation.  As a result, his partner Liz Holt (Gia Carides), leaves him for his main rival, Ken Railings.  His mother Shirley (Pat Thomson), a former dance champion who now co-owns a studio with former partner Les Kendall, is determined to find Scott a new partner in time for the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship.  Unbeknownst to his mother and Les, his teacher, Scott is approached by Fran (Tara Morice), a frumpy beginner at the studio, who tells him that she wants to dance “his steps”.  Though Scott is skeptical of Fran’s ability to dance with him, he starts to teach her the steps; she, in turn, helps him decide when to add new steps.  When she shows him a pasodoble step, he realizes that she does have talent.  Her knowledge of these steps comes from her Spanish family, who own a small business.  Fran’s father is extremely hard on his daughter, and when he sees her coming home with Scott one night, he gets very angry.  Scott explains that they were only dancing together; when Fran’s father asks for a demonstration of this dance, Scott and Fran do a pasodoble.  Scott also gets angry when Fran’s father begins to laugh; when Scott questions him, the older man stands up and does an authentic pasodoble.  Rather than return to the studio, Fran and Scott begin meeting at her house, where they receive tutoring from Fran’s father and grandmother.  During this time, a personal attraction between them grows.  Scott’s family is still unaware of this partnership, until he abruptly announces it one day.  Shirley in particular is horrified, because she does not believe that Scott has a chance of winning the Pan-Pacifics without a more experienced partner.

Desperate to keep Scott from dancing his own steps at another competition, Barry Fife visits and tells Scott about his parents.  Completely unbeknownst to Scott, his father was also once a champion dancer, paired with his mother.  Doug (Barry Otto) and Shirley Hastings were the toast of the Federation, until Doug became obsessed with using his own steps.  When he insisted on doing this, they lost the Pan Pacific, and fell from grace.  Doug was brokenhearted, and never danced again.  However, Barry tells Scott that the thing that has kept Doug going is the hope that his son will be able to win the contest that he could not.  Scott is deeply moved, and decides to dance with his old partner, Liz, so that he can win the contest for his father.  Fran is sent back to the beginners’ class.  At the Pan-Pacific competition, a fellow dancer and close friend of Scott’s overhears Barry Fife saying that he has fixed the competition so that Scott and Liz will not win, no matter how well they dance.  He considers this to be a punishment for Scott, for trying to defy his authority.  This friend manages to find Les Kendall, but cannot find Scott, who has had a change of heart.  After seeing Fran on the floor during a free dance, Scott has run off in search of her, but has been waylaid by his father.  Doug explains that the story Barry told him was only partially true:  Doug did want to dance his own steps, but never got the chance, because Barry convinced Shirley to dance with somebody else (Les) instead.  Barry told Shirley that there was no chance of winning with different steps, so she did the traditional steps with Les, but lost anyway.  After hearing this, Scott resumes his search for Fran, finally finding her leaving the building with her father and grandmother.  He is able to convince her to dance with him, although the music has already started.  When Scott bursts onto the floor in the middle of the song and begins to dance with Fran, Barry tries to stop the music.  He is temporarily thwarted by Scott’s younger sister and a friend, but another adult intervenes and cuts the music.  Barry loudly disqualifies the couple and orders them off the floor, but Doug Hastings begins to clap out a beat.  Soon, he is joined by Fran’s family, along with most of the crowd; when they realize what is happening, Scott and Fran begin to dance to the beat, without any music.  Backstage, Scott’s partner Liz manages to restore the music, and Scott and Fran finish their dance to great applause.  In tears at his son’s performance, Doug asks Shirley to dance with him for the first time since that old competition; the rest of the audience and dancers soon join in.

MY TAKE:  This starts out as a really campy, funny movie (it actually reminds me a lot of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert).  Several of the personalities, like Shirley and Liz, are really overblown, so it comes across like a humorous take on the world of ballroom dancing (holy cow, some of the costumes).  The humor remains, but the tone of the movie grows more refined as it progresses.  The dancing itself is terrific, and Scott and Fran’s relationship gives things a more serious undertone.  Shirley, who is a harpy, steals just about every scene she’s in for me.  At one point, the day after Scott is disqualified for dancing his own steps, she comes to the studio proclaiming that she’s put on her “happy face”, and will not be brought down by any negative news or talk.  She keeps this huge smile plastered on her face, until she abruptly breaks down into what is basically a temper tantrum.  The combination of in-your-face, overblown humorous characters and the more serious natures of Scott and Fran make a perfect match.  It’s terrifically entertaining – there’s an engaging storyline, funny characters and exceptional dancing.

RATING:  Thoroughly enjoyable.

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