Antonio Banderas stars as a teacher who helps inner city teenagers take steps toward a hopeful future: ballroom dancing steps. Alan Silverman has a look at Take The Lead.
The place is a high school in New York's Harlem neighborhood where it sometimes seems that keeping the students from hurting each other is as much of a challenge as getting them interested in class work. So when a dapper, well-mannered gentleman offers to help, most of the teachers dismiss him ... as do the teenagers.
Take The Lead is inspired by the true story of Pierre Dulaine, whose successful ballroom dancing program that started in New York City elementary schools was chronicled in the 2005 documentary film Mad Hot Ballroom. Antonio Banderas plays the determined dance master and says he was as skeptical as the characters in the film ... until he met the real Pierre Dulaine.
"At the beginning I almost had the same reaction that the kids had when they said 'aw, ballroom dancing...' " Banderas admits. " I have to confess that I received the script and said 'ballroom dancing? I don't want to do that.' I didn't even read it, but my agent started insisting that the producer wanted to have a meeting with me, so I read the script - finally. I liked it (but) then I met him and I discovered a man that was kind of mysterious, in a way. He was not so much interested in telling things about his own personal life. He was just talking about the essence of what this program was."
Pierre Dulaine is every bit as charming and sincere as the film version portrayed by Banderas; and he explains that his classes (and the film's message) are about more than learning dance steps.
"Nowadays, I don't say that the world is uncivil, but I believe we don't have enough civility in life and this is what this program teaches," he says. " If we can instill civility into children at the age of 10 or 17 - early enough in life - we can nurture it and have it grow with them. It will only make them better human beings."
Dulaine admits this film takes significant liberties with the realities of his life and his dance program. For instance, the classes were originally for young children in elementary school, not teenage troublemakers in high school; but he says the Hollywood version remains true to his ideals.
"The message is still the same," Dulaine says. "The children learn ballroom dancing, yes; but the real thing they are learning are the transferable skills of decorum, etiquette, being polite with each other, respect, dignity. All of these things they are learning when they really need them, so I had no qualms with it being changed to high school. I don't really care if you're a 10-year old or 17-year old (that) when you're 25 that you remember the steps, but the transferable skills of being polite and knowing how to treat another human being is what my message is all about."
The film's star has danced a tango or two in his stage and screen work, but he says he gained a new appreciation for the dance floor.
"Me, personally, Antonio Banderas: just rehearsing this movie I discovered that there is something about the relationship of men and women when you are ballroom dancing that is extremely beautiful and gratifying," he says. " There is a certain abandon in the woman ... a trust in you when you are holding her ... and the way that she comes back. There are little nuances. How you play with your fingers on the back means something so she is going to do this movement. When all those things are realized and you forget about the technique and just listen to good music and start dancing, it is really wonderful."
Banderas believes that he and his young co-stars touch on themes that teenagers from any social background can recognize and appreciate.
"I am absolutely conscious that this movie is not going to win at the Cannes Film Festival and is not going to make motion picture history; but it is a necessary movie," he says. "Movies like this are like little grains of sand, bringing something. It is a 'red light' saying we have to be alert to these things that are happening.
The cast features Alfre Woodard as the high school principal who decides to give the unorthodox program a chance. Ya Ya DaCosta and Rob Brown play the teenage students with the most to lose ... and who gain the most ... by learning to "Take the Lead."