West Yorkshire Playhouse’s festive show is Strictly Ballroom The Musical, which is excuse enough for Sophie Scott to revisit Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 romcom with pizzazz.
What and why: There are two versions of the appearance of Strictly Ballroom in 1992. The famous one is the story of Baz Luhrmann’s show, written when he was a student, which became a stage hit, which was made into a film, which Luhrmann directed and which launched his career.
The more personal one is my going to see this film with a bunch of colleagues from UCL and my working life being transported by the sight of people dancing up and down the corridors for weeks afterwards. It was the first time I’d ever experienced spontaneous applause in a cinema. It was amazing.
In 1992, Come Dancing was still on television and we would quite often watch it, because I liked strict tempo dance arrangements, Blackpool Tower Ballroom and high camp entertainment. I did not associate ballroom with beauty and grace. I was wrong.
It’s odd going back to Strictly Ballroom now, as it was so influential – both in cinema (the faux documentary opening scenes, the flashback sequences) and of course in TV, with Strictly Come Dancing becoming the UK’s light entertainment juggernaut of the 21st century. I was worried that I would enjoy it much less 24 years later.
“Fran also gets to take off her glasses and becomes beautiful and never needs to put the glasses back on again. Either there is a whole section about contact lenses left on the cutting room floor or her original optician was severely at fault.”
Rated or dated: I need not have worried; Strictly Ballroom has aged very well. The basic story – rebellious talented young man in white vest follows his heart; a plain woman with glasses, face covered in rubble, an unflattering T-shirt and suspiciously excellent posture is revealed to be an incredible dancer; together they change the world – is so cliched it’s timeless.
I’d forgotten, however, how the apparently unpromising dancer (Fran, played by Tara Morice) is both assertive and wise: she persuades the hopelessly good-looking and graceful hero (Scott, Paul Mercurio) to dance with her, although she is just a ‘beginner’, before impressing him with a demonstration of some elaborate footwork. He asks her where she got this from and she says words to the effect of, “Oh, it’s just some steps I was working on over the weekend” like it’s NOTHING.
She also gets to take off her glasses and becomes beautiful and never needs to put the glasses back on again. *long hard stare through glasses* Either there is a whole section about contact lenses left on the cutting room floor or her original optician was severely at fault. Anyhow. Sorry. As we were.
The film makes continual jokes at the expense of the ‘tacky’ and insular world of ballroom dancing, but it also portrays the genuine beauty of dance with real love – Scott and Fran’s dances are never shown as anything but graceful. When everyone laughs at Fran imagining she could dance with Scott, and Scott runs off to find her and they dance to Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps it’s extraordinarily moving.
It’s up there with the dance scene from Witness for showing the emotional intensity of dance. Actually, I just watched both clips, and what I think I might mean is that it totally looks like everybody wants to kiss, but let’s stick with emotional intensity for now *coughs*.
I’ll stand by this claim also because the scenes where Scott learns to dance as if from new with Fran’s (suspiciously well dressed and shod) father and grandmother manage to look affectionate, spontaneous and joyful. And I think that it’s this joy that had everyone dancing in the corridors of the very beautiful academic building in which I studied in 1992.
The message of the film is complex – and includes gems such as don’t live your life in fear, glasses are an index of social pariah status, and that it’s important for handsome and graceful young men to wear white vests whenever it’s feasible.
However, by the end of the film you are screaming for Scott to dance with Fran and you don’t care if his flashy crowd-pleasing steps will get them both disqualified. You just want to see them dance, even if it’s not strictly ballroom. The baddies get vanquished, the lost hopes of parents are rekindled, and dancing wins. The film deserves its influence, and it deserved all the applause. I’m glad it made us love dance again. RATED.
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I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott