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Strictly Ballroom (1993)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

Strictly Ballroom is one of my favorite movies. It can appeal to all audiences for several reasons. Although it is set in the world of ballroom dancing, it could almost as easily have been about tennis, or ice skating or any number of other things. It is really about the challenges that face the innovator: he or she who challenges the status quo.

Of course, if you are looking for a film about dancing, it certainly is in that genre. Like another recent film: Billy Elliot, it focuses on dance and the world of dancing. In other ways it is quite different from Billy Elliot. Billy Elliot is a serious drama, with a few light moments. Strictly Ballroom is a romantic comedy with a few serious moments. Both are fine films about dance, to which I give my wholehearted endorsement, but they have different emphases.

Strictly Ballroom is one of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain trilogy of movies (with Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge). Luhrmann, who was involved in ballroom dancing, had the original idea for the story, which was first developed as a play that he co-wrote. He also co-wrote the movie screenplay and directed the movie. The cast is outstanding using many fine Australian actors and actresses, some who originally worked in the play.

The story opens at a ballroom dance competition. Couples are introduced and the contestants are shown first waltzing and then doing the Samba. Scott (Paul Mercurio) and Liz (Gia Carides) are “couple one hundred” who have the support of the people most often on camera. Their dancing is interlaced with apparent interviews of Scott’s mother (Pat Thomson) and dance instructor (Peter Whitford) who give their “insights” on the events developing on the dance floor. The viewer is able to pick up on the herd mentality and doublespeak which operates in many of the characters in the movie that enables Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) to thoroughly dominate the dance federation. Les Kendall’s statements about how Scott has endangered his career by “resorting to his own flashy crowd pleasing steps” lacking in “floor craft” hints at how people are kept in line by mere words. The extreme exaggeration of Scott’s mother: Shirley Hastings’ testimony is a taste of the humor ever present in Strictly Ballroom.

Liz leaves angrily after it is announced that she and Scott have not won the competition. In leaving she knocks down another woman, Fran (Tara Morice), who will be part of the inspiration for Scott to persevere in his efforts to follow his own way. The characters making up the status quo of the dance federation and the person who encourages Scott in his struggle with them are all introduced in this first scene. My favorite character is Scott’s father (Barry Otto), who eventually does get Scott to let him “bend [his] ear for a tick.”

Strictly Ballroom is not a musical, but it has a fine soundtrack. It also has important themes: the challenges to innovation, the banality of evil, the importance of friends and family and the primary importance of “doing your own steps.”

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