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Escapism from Houston

Dance has local angles but an unimaginative story

When successful romance authors pick the settings for their sappy, melodramatic novels, they know better than to conjure scenes of windswept lust in a fish-packing plant or the cubicle of an accountant's office.

According to the rules, after all, love only comes to those who dwell within lush and dreamy-eyed surroundings. Like the stables of thoroughbred racing horses, the telephone repairman's van, or an imperiled -- romantically imperiled, that is -- business in need of that special someone to breathe new life into the bosom of its proprietress. Dance with Me opts for formula number three.

Rafael Infante (Latin megastar Chayanne) leaves his native Cuba for Houston, where the American ex-boyfriend of his recently deceased mother has a job waiting for him at his dance studio. (Though it may be set in Houston, don't expect any familiar sights. A pan of downtown as Rafael's Greyhound pulls into the station and a few sunset-framed skyscrapers are all you'll get.) There Rafael is mesmerized by Ruby (Vanessa Williams), an African-American dancer known for her mambo. She has vowed to return to competition after six years of raising her young son.

But America is tougher than Rafael expected. The studio's owner, John Burnett (Kris Kristofferson), may have once romanced Rafael's mother, but he has no intention of making the Latin stranger feel at home. And Rafael soon finds that the beautiful Ruby has no desire for romance. As hard as he tries, Rafael can't seem to break through to either of them. Can he soften Ruby's icy heart? Can he win the love of the father he never had? Can he keep himself alive in the vast, calculating urban wilds of Texas?

Chayanne, in real life, is more Madonna than Banderas, enjoying dual careers as a platinum pop star and soap-opera heartthrob in Latin America. There is mucho chemistry between him and Williams. Chayanne's electrifying smile will certainly find a place with American audiences, and there's no way around the natural gorgeousness of Williams -- or her dancer's legs that go on forever. Except perhaps on the cover of a Harlequin romance, two more photogenic people are not to be found.

But Dance with Me is equal parts Harlequin romance and PR for the Latino immigrant community adapted to the big screen. The eternally optimistic Cubano brings nothing but love, zest and warmth to the cold-hearted, self-absorbed Americans. They're all hard-working, friendly and determined. They're sucking the very marrow from life! Americans need to appreciate Latins, as good people, as good for the country, and as a revitalizing force! A nice thing to see in a big studio production, even if the concept is given shallow and hackneyed treatment.

Cuba is populated with eternally smiling, dancing multicultural peasants. Communism looks like a lot of fun, with street musicians and festive mamacitas on every corner. You wonder why someone would want to leave such a fab place. This Disneyland version of Latin life follows Rafael to America, where it's all paper flowers, steamy dancing and the Queen's English for the expatriate Cubanos he meets.

Ah, but things generally lean toward the superficial in romances. There are never any villains, except for the slinky man-stealer or spurned ex. The latter appears in Dance with Me in the form of Ruby's slimy ex-partner, Julian.

And the women are aloof, yet passionate just beneath the surface. In Dance with Me, director Randa Haines pulls out her favorite plot device. She specializes in characters with tough exteriors (Marlee Matlin as Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God, William Hurt as an unfeeling surgeon in The Doctor) blossoming as the result of a patient romancer or a sudden epiphany. But the viewer needn't be aware of that to predict where the chips will fall in Dance with Me.

"I don't want to be in love," says Ruby. Cue the quivering lips and furtive glances. Understatement is another element one associates with romances, simply because it's usually lacking. Both leads could've worked on their skill with subtlety.

The climax comes during the big international contest in Las Vegas where Ruby is competing with Julian in hopes that she'll regain her title. (Most enjoyable is her attempt to convey her yearning for Rafael while on stage.) The producers hired scads of professional dancers for the competition scenes, bringing a legitimacy to the film it might have lacked. The flashy moves and flashier costumes are a visual feast, though the competitions were shot in real time, adding considerable length to an otherwise breezily edited film. It feels like an attempt to squeeze all they could from what must have been an expensive shoot.

Needless to say, nothing terribly unexpected happens. Rafael is utterly faultless, about as close to Prince Charming as possible without owing royalties. And the Ice Queen comes around. All of which is what romance fans would probably want -- something cornier and more dramatic than real life. Though the film is not likely to chart at the Academy Awards, escapist entertainment like this has its niche at the box office, and probably always will.

Dance with Me.
Rated PG.
Directed by Randa Haines. Starring Vanessa Williams, Chayanne and Kris Kristofferson.

 
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