Why are these three men at a ballroom dance class? Macho strutter Chic says it’s because a man who can move on the boards knows how to move in the sack. He’s after sex. Think passion and powerplay, think rumba and tango, think Latin dancing. Overweight Vern is looking for a woman to marry, and asking for a lady’s hand needs rehearsal. He’s looking for love: think here of the waltz, the foxtrot, of a couple circling each other like a living image of togetherness. Think ballroom dancing. Finally, John Clark (Richard Gere) doesn’t know what to think, though he’s clearly lured by the siren beauty of dance teacher Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), who stands wistfully at the window of Miss Mitzi’s Dance Studio. Yes, but what is he after?
That, indeed, is the central question in Shall We Dance? John Clark is a successful lawyer with a big house, happily married to Beverly (Susan Sarandon), with two mischievous-yet-adorable teenage kids. In other words, he’s having a mid-life crisis. So one day he goes off the rails of his commuter train and into a dance studio. For a while it looks as if he’ll follow the classic routine and have an affair. But Paulina’s still nursing a broken heart following a mishap at a ballroom competition in Blackpool, England. Her gentle refusal of his barely perceptible advances makes him realise: he just wants to learn to dance!
He starts training for a competition with wise-cracking Bobbi (a kind of Bette Midler in a ballgown), gets a new circle of friends, and even discovers that work colleague Link (Stanley Tucci) is a closet Latin dancer. John, too, keeps his new love hidden. But the spring in his step leads Beverly to suspect an affair, and she hires a detective to trail him. Eventually John confesses that he had kept it a secret because he felt guilty about wanting to be happier. This, and his dapper figure on the dancefloor, rekindles the love between John and Beverly, and then everybody, but everybody, gets happily partnered off.
Shall We Dance? is as lasting and as deep a spray tan
On its own terms, Shall We Dance? is a homely, feelgood and unashamedly sentimental film. But it’s as lasting and as deep a spray tan. Much of its action is inconsequential, Lopez and Sarandon barely register as characters, and Gere overdoes the use of inward smiles and lowered eyes to signal that he’s having a thought. As for the dancing, the film tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, it proposes dance as a life-enhancing end in itself. But by the end, it is a means to sex and love – Latin and ballroom rolled into a single package. Film musicals often use dance to show various aspects of coupledom. But there is neither the frisson of eroticism nor the tug of romance in this blandly conventional film.