Fair warning: I took several years of Cotillion. At one point in my life, I actually knew how to ballroom dance. So I’m aware that the actors in this movie aren’t great dancers. The distance between their bodies alone drives me nuts, but if I can ignore that, so can you.
Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (He also directed Moulin Rouge) is an early example of his ability to mix absurd and surreal elements with reality in his stories. At its core, the story of Strictly Ballroom is ugly-duckling girl chases perfect boy, romancy stuff, happy ending. While this theme that women have to transform themselves (read: tart up) to get their man is irritating, it’s a staple in many books and movies. But putting that aside, here’s the longer synopsis of the story in Strictly Ballroom, which I'm telling you to set up the two clips I discuss below:
Scott is poised to be the next Pan-Pacific ballroom champion, when he *gasp* starts dancing his own steps. This rebellion against the powers-that-be puts his future in ballroom in jeopardy, so his partner leaves him. Scott’s mother runs a dance studio. She brings partner after partner to him as the days tick down to the all important Pan-Pacific (a win will guarantee the success of the family’s dance studio), but none will do. As Scott practices his steps alone in the studio, a frumpy girl (Fran) from the beginner’s class tells him that she likes his steps and would like to dance with him. He laughs at her at first, but she shows him a step that will complete the sequence he’s trying to choreograph, so he gives her dance lessons in private in the hopes that she’ll be good enough to help him out at the Pan-Pacific. As they spend more time together, he meets her family of Spanish immigrants. It turns out that her father and late mother were famous dancers. When Scott shows the father and grandmother his moves, they laugh at his style. What? He’s great, or at least he’s always been told so, and yet, here are people who tell him that he just doesn’t get it. They teach him to dance their way. At the next competition before the Pan-Pacific, Scott and Fran are going to dance together in public for the first time, but before that happens, Scott’s mother announces that Tina Sparkle (love her name) , who has been the partner of the reigning champion, has agreed to be Scott’s new partner. Fran runs off. At that moment, Scott has to decide between the dream partner who will assure him a Pan-Pacific win, and a partner who he has come to have feelings for.
The YouTube clip below starts the scene a few moments later than I would have edited it. Fran is backstage peering through the curtains as Tina Sparkle and her partner perform their farewell dance for the crowd. Tina is thin and glamorous. She looks good in a glorified bikini with green rumba sleeves. Fran says to Scott, “She’s beautiful. I could never dance like that.” What she means is, “I understand why you’d choose her over me.” She closes the curtain and turns away.
Earlier in the film, Scott embarrasses Fran by telling her that even though the dance they’re practicing is the dance of love, it isn’t real. She’s been pursuing him, and he’s damn callous about it. After all, he knows he’s the catch. But now Scott realizes he’s about to lose Fran. Suddenly, he has to pursue her. The power dynamic is turned on its head in a breathtaking bit of storytelling. The song they dance to, Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps, is probably the most perfect soundtrack selection ever, reflecting where the characters are emotionally and the questions that hang between them.
Look at the setting: They’re behind the scenes, where things are hidden. They’ve been practicing together secretly. No one in his world knows he’s been dancing with her. He leads her behind sheer curtains that glow with soft pink light, evocative of a boudoir. It feels forbidden.
Note the expression on Fran’s face as they dance. Scott pulls her into a brief embrace, but she can’t see his expression. She isn’t quite sure what Scott’s up to, and she’s not sure if she should trust him. He dips her. A quick dip, a woman can control with the man simply spotting her, but a slow dip that low is all about trust. She has to believe that he won't let her fall or she will (personal experience). But there's also an implied motion behind the dip - he's easing her in a prone position, as if onto a bed. When she looks into his eyes, her expression shifts to “convince me.” He caresses her face.
While Scott and Fran aren’t in skimpy clothes or doing suggestive moves, the intimacy of their dance shocks everyone who sees it, because it’s meant to be a private seduction.
Then they realize they've been seen and she falls, or Scott drops her. You decide.
Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps
But of course, things have to get complicated, or you don’t have a story.
Urged by villain Barry Fife, Scott later agrees to dance the regulation steps with Tina Sparkle instead of his own steps with Fran. Scott doesn’t know it, but years ago, his father dared to dance his own steps too. His mother, also under persuasion from Barry Fife, betrayed his father at the last moment and danced with another partner, insuring that Barry Fife won the Pan-Pacific and went on to rule the ballroom dance scene with an iron fist. Since then, Scott’s father hasn’t danced. Barry is frightened of dance steps he can’t teach, so he fixes the Pan-Pacific, insuring that Scott will lose even with Tina Sparkle as a partner. Without knowing this, Scott decides to go for broke and dance with Fran. He won’t win the Pan-Pacific, but he’ll win the girl. As Barry Fife looks sure to triumph, Scott’s father comes to the rescue (as does Scott’s little sister in a confection of pink marabou, Scott’s former dance partner in canary, his friends, and Fran’s father and grandmother).
Everything about Fran and Scott at this moment in the film shows they’ve moved beyond being Strictly Ballroom. Fran started off as dowdy (to be kind). Her style changes, but she never dresses like the other female characters. When you first see Scott, he dresses like everyone else in the ballroom world, but his style evolves and converges with Fran’s. The outfits they wear in the final scene belonged to Fran’s mother and father and are remarkably different from the other dancers. (In Paso Double, the man is a matador, the woman is sometimes his cape, other times the bull.) They are now “authentic;” the other dancers on the floor are merely wearing costumes.
Fran and Scott dance the Paso Double with passion and in the style of Fran’s family, not regulation steps. Even the choreography here tells part of the story. At the end of the dance, having proven what he wanted to, Scott ends on his knees before Fran. This personal victory is because of her, and he knows it. Then he rises and gives her a look that is raw possession. Until now, partners have been interchangeable, but this woman is his.
Maybe they don’t win a trophy, but Fran and Scott triumph anyway. Scott and Fran’s rebellion liberates the dance scene from Barry Fife’s rule. Scott’s father and mother dance together for the first time since the big betrayal. Dance is now about expressing joy. Everyone takes to the dance floor in celebration to the tune of Love is in the Air.
Strictly Ballroom is a good story, and has a fantastically witty script but it's hardly a unique tale. What makes it stand out is how Baz Luhrmann used every piece of storytelling craft available to him to enhance the impact.