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Friday, March 23, 2007
Dust off the dancing shoes
By KAORI SHOJI
If nothing else, "Step Up" is a great inducement to hit the gym. Or the barre. And the yoga mat. Anything in fact, to tighten those upper body muscles and get those abs to pop out.
Directed by Hollywood choreographer Anne Fletcher (her work includes "Boogie Nights" and "Cheers!") "Step Up" is a dance movie through and through, i.e. a triumph of physical exertion over content. On the other hand, with incredibly aligned bodies plus a lot of great lycra products (and you'll see a lot of those) who really needs substance? OK, substance is important, but there are times in life when all you want to do is sit back and guffaw over something like "Step Up" -- remembering fragments of dance lessons past, or those days when you danced till dawn before shakily making it back home to crash fully-clothes onto the bed.
"Dancers have a tough time," says lead actress Jenna Dewan during a promotional trip to Tokyo. Dewan plays Nora, a performance-arts student who is desperate to become a dance pro after graduation. "They're treated pretty badly for incredible amounts of hard work, and even if they do become successful, there's no guarantee that injuries or bad luck or any number of things will pull them down."
In the United States, young dancers -- even if they get a contract with a dance company, will find it hard to make ends meet for at least five years, explains Dewan. She herself had been dancing since the age of 12 and got her break dancing on MTV and, later, movies.
"I just hope more dance movies get made so there will be more opportunities for all of us," she says.
Is it difficult for her to combine acting with her craft? "On set, acting is a challenge. Dancing is the comfort zone."
Lead actor Channing Tatum, who plays Nora's dancing partner Tyler, says he feels the same way. "With dancing, I get the feeling I know what I'm doing, even though I'm less experienced than Jenna. I got this part through an audition, and I know I'm not the best dancer there is, but there was a good chemistry going between me and everything about this movie." All of that shows in the movie; though Nora and Tyler find it difficult to be articulate, they never have trouble communicating through dance.
Tyler is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks in downtown Baltimore, coming from a foster home and hanging out/stealing cars with the brothers from the 'hood. When they break into the famed Maryland School of Arts and trash some theater costumes, Tyler is sentenced to doing janitorial work there as a community service penance. In the school, he meets the classy Nora, a suburban princess who devotes most of her waking hours to practicing. She sees Tyler can dance the one time he goofs off work to do a few steps in the schoolyard, and she asks him to practice with her when her partner sprains his ankle.
The scenes where they work together in the school studio are the adrenaline-generators in this movie; nothing else matches the genuine, incredible energy and sheer elation that emanates from the screen. Surprisingly, Nora wears high heels throughout these scenes, which is something one rarely sees in dance movies.
"Wearing heels to dance is potentially dangerous," admits Dewan. "It's my height, I'm too short so I've gotten used to dancing and practicing in heels. For years my feet were always calloused and bloody. But feet adjust, like everything else in the body."
In the story, Nora is so dedicated to her art that she winds up alienating her mother and even Tyler is temporarily put off by her single-mindedness. "Dancing is very, very demanding" says Dewan. "So I know how Nora feels though I think I'm a lot more relaxed than she is."
Apart from the dancing, "Step Up" is about class. Tyler, whose friends are all black and who dances hip-hop as easily and gracefully as if the moves had been injected into his DNA, has the typical outlook born of a no-hope existence. Unambitious and apathetic, his goal is to keep his goals murky and undefined. ("Why hope for something you can't have?")
Nora lives in a brownstone house crammed with gleaming mahogany furniture and is bored to death by the silent, te^te-a-te^te dinners she has with her manicured mother. She wants out, and thinks professional dancing will provide the escape route. Tyler can't envisage the future and is content to drift from day to day. Neither of the pair are happy in their current situations but when they try to talk about it with each other, issues of money, privilege and class get in the way. Director Fletcher, however, makes no attempt to pursue or develop these themes, and prefers instead to have them work out their differences on the dance floor.
In dance movies, good resources, like genuine acting talent, are often sacrificed at the altar of choreography. In this one, the waste is Rachel Griffiths, who appears as the school principal. With very little to do except dispense some worldly wisdom with a tight little smile, former wild-child Griffiths seems practically lobotomized in the midst of all that movement. You begin to wish she'd rip off her pants suit, whip on some leotards and start dancing, which based on her past performances you just know she's more than capable of doing.