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‘Strictly Ballroom’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 26, 1993

Life is a continuous cotillion for stalwarts of the Australian Dance Federation, whose whirl-weary ways inspire first-time filmmaker Baz Luhrmann's bubbly almost-musical, "Strictly Ballroom." A student documentary that grew into an irreverent spoof of prom movie protocol, this irresistible import manages to both tweak and embrace the conventions of the genre -- from the booty shaking of "Dirty Dancing" to the Latin sizzle of "Flying Down to Rio."

It practically celebrates convenience of plot, over-the-top acting and follow-the-footprints dialogue, but mostly it is a salute to sequins and sashay. With just a hint of sarcasm.

Paul Mercurio, a dancer-choreographer with the Sydney Dance Company, stars as Scott Hastings, a young dancer whose "flashy crowd-pleasing steps" are banned from competition by the fossils heading the federation. The son of a ballroom champion turned teacher, Scott has been groomed from Gerberhood for the upcoming Pan-Pacific Grand Prix. But it looks as if the rebellious hoofer is about to throw it all away by dancing the illegal pasa doble (a Spanish pas de deux).

When his spunky, bespangled partner (Gia Carides) abandons him for the smarmy king of ballroom dance (John Hannan), Scott's mother (Pat Thomson) is left reeling. But the unsinkable part-time Avon Lady -- so tanned her skin looks like beef jerky -- is determined to bring Scott back into the fold. His father (Barry Otto), a myopic, middle-aged Ed Grimly type, secretly seems to admire his son's defiant footwork, but Scott is otherwise without allies.

It seems the defiant stud muffin was destined to compete alone. But it takes two to pasa doble -- a fact that does not escape the resident wallflower, Fran (Tara Morice), whose beauty is hidden under her spectacles. The novice Fran gingerly persuades Scott to dance with her at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix. Fran's father, a hotblooded Spanish emigre (flamenco great Antonio Vargas), overcomes his prejudice against Scott and helps the pair rehearse their flamboyant routine. Then just when they're cooking with salsa, Scott is offered the chance to join Australia's premier girl dancer, Tina Sparkle, whose partner has retired to devote more time to his landscaping business.

Will Scott abandon the demure Fran for Tina, whose costumes look like the contents of a fruit bowl? Will Fran have to dance with her usual partner, a fat girl? Will Scott's dad spill his dark secret? Will the corrupt head of the federation prevail?

The suspense won't kill anybody, which is, of course, the point. Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce play with the stilted dramatics to hilarious effect, relying on the silly swirl of this small universe and wonderfully off-kilter secondary characters to freshen up the fairy tale -- not that Cinderella ever really needed to trade in the pumpkin.

"Strictly Ballroom" is, in fact, a conga line of Cinderella stories. The ADF members, most of them blue-collar wearers by day, are magically transformed, if only in their own minds, on donning their dancing shoes. Not that the movie takes the notion all that seriously. There's even a cheek-to-cheekiness to the choreography, performed with good humor and high energy by the principals. Mr. Dundee, meet Arthur Murray.

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