'Dance With Me': Sit it out

August 21, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Puerto Rican pop superstar Chayanne may give Taye Diggs of "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" a run for Most Engaging Smile from a Newcomer. The endearing music sensation, who co-stars in "Dance With Me," combines enough sex appeal, shy likability and no small amount of talent to make a respectable big-screen debut.

But not even a presence as charismatic as Chayanne -- or a triple-threat talent like Vanessa Williams -- is enough to sweep "Dance With Me" off its feet. Instead of a sizzling romance spiced with a salsa beat, this leaden effort remains a wallflower, earnestly drooping on the sidelines.

Chayanne plays Rafael Infante, who wants to leave his native Cuba and work at the Houston dance school of John Burnett (Kris Kristofferson), an old flame of his mother's.

Burnett finds Rafael work as a handyman at the school, and when the young man arrives he finds a cheerful, slightly ramshackle studio where lonely ladies polish their foxtrot and ambitious amateurs perfect their pirouettes.

Rafael also finds Ruby (Williams), one of the school's instructors, who is preparing to compete in a Latin dance competition in Las Vegas. When Rafael tries to show Ruby how real Latins dance -- letting the music tell them how to move rather than executing a series of grim, perfect steps -- she takes umbrage. But a spark is ignited. The two fight and dance their way to Las Vegas, where "Dance With Me" ends in a too-long sequence of dance-contest moments.

For a movie about dancing, there's way too little of it in "Dance With Me," which was directed by Randa Haines. Even more sadly, most of the dance sequences take place at the competition, where the dancing looks synthetic, strenuous and terribly un-fun. (Hint: If you change the channel when you see these things on PBS, you'll want to skip the movie version.)

Clearly seeking to capitalize on the popularity of such entertaining dance movies as "Strictly Ballroom" and the charming Japanese film "Shall We Dance?," "Dance With Me" has only one bona-fide fabulous dance scene, when Chayanne and Ruby join the revelers for a giddy, sensuous group dance.

Williams is a gifted actress and a terrific dancer (she doesn't have an opportunity to sing here), whose talents aren't quite given their due by Haines. "Dance With Me" focuses too much on torsos and not enough on legs and feet, and it is edited too choppily to get an idea of the dancers' full expression.

For his part, Chayanne has an odd duck-walk of a dance technique, but he makes up in soul what he lacks in virtuosity. His riff on "Singin' in the Rain" amid a yard full of sprinklers is a brief delight.

Although Kristofferson is miscast as the dance-school owner -- it's difficult to visualize this grizzled cowboy teaching the jitterbug on a cruise ship -- Jane Krakowski, from "Ally McBeal," shows off her ballet talents in a lovely, floaty pas de deux with Chayanne. The redoubtable Joan Plowright, who is supposed to be the film's comic relief, is woefully ill-served by a limp script.

Still, Plowright's clownish routine with Chayanne during the movie's climax is executed with all the sweetness and grace the two can muster. If only "Dance With Me" were lighter on its feet, it might have capitalized on the talent right under its nose.

'Dance With Me'

Starring Vanessa Williams, Chayanne, Kris Kristofferson

Directed by Randa Haines

Released by Tristar Pictures

Rated PG (mild language and sensuality)

Running time: 126 minutes

Sun score: * 1/2

Pub Date: 8/21/98

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