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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Want your voice to be heard? Submit a letter to the editor, send us an op-ed pitch or check out our open positions for the chance to be published by the Daily Utah Chronicle.
@TheChrony

Left, right, cha, cha, BANG!

“Take the Lead”New Line CinemaDirected by Liz FriedlanderWritten by Dianne HoustonStarring: Antonio Banderas, Rob Brown, Yaya DaCosta, Dante Basco and Alfre WoodardRated PG-13/108 minutesOpens April 7, 2006Three out of four stars

The blueprints for “Take the Lead” resemble one of those dusty, instructional dance mats-you know, the kind of mat with the footprints and the arrows and the rigid sense of art made mechanical.

Step here, step there, rotate, repeat-be elegant.

Antonio Banderas smolders better than anyone else alive, so he’s ideal for the role of Pierre Dulaine, a ballroom dance teacher who inspires self-respect in troubled, inner-city youths.

The plot will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever seen “Coach Carter,” “Dangerous Minds,” “The Concrete Jungle,” or any movie in which an Inspirational Teacher brings out the best in The Students That Everyone Has Written Off.

The teacher is patient and kind and tough when needed, and somehow finds a way to indirectly solve the personal problems of every one of his or her students through some unconventional teaching method.

However, “Take the Lead” doesn’t quite rise above the formula. It occupies it at a steady, pleasant and sometimes dazzling level.

It steps here, it steps there, it rotates and repeats with style.

Riding his bike home from work one night, Pierre has a run-in with Rock (Rob Brown), a student turned petty criminal. He catches Rock smashing the principal’s windshield with a bat, something sure to catch the principal’s attention in the morning. Instead of ratting on him, Pierre visits the principal (played with angry cynicism by Alfre Woodard) and volunteers his services to the school: He will teach the kids ballroom dance.

After all, that’ll fix the broken windshield.

The principal looks at Pierre like he’s a joke, but she also sees an opportunity: She needs someone to baby-sit the troublemakers in detention. She throws Pierre to the wolves and makes bets with her faculty-how long will he last?

“Five bucks says he won’t last a day,” she says.

Oh, but he does. He comes back the next day, and the next and the next. The kids are stubborn until he panders to their sex drives by engaging in a steamy tango with the gorgeous Morgan (Katya Virshilas). The kids are sold, especially Ramos (Dante Basco), who, to quote his verbiage, wants to “hit that s*** up.”

Little dramas unfold in the group. Rock is a good kid but under immense pressure from all angles after his older brother was shot dead, leaving him the sole provider for his broken family-a responsibility that turns him criminal.

Larhette (Yaya DaCosta) raises her younger brothers while her mom prostitutes herself to earn a living. She and Rock could fall in love-if only they could work past their interlocked tragedies and grudges.

Ramos wrestles with Eddie (Marcus T. Paulk) for the affection of Sasha (Jenna Dewan). How they exploit this dilemma at the big, inevitable dance competition is the best part of the movie, no matter how unbelievable it is.

The story foxtrots to all the expected stops: the false crisis leads to the false victory, which leads to the real crisis and then the real victory. It’s a durable formula because it can make us feel so damned warm and tingly inside.

“Take the Lead” colors outside those clichs with its sad, but truthful, details. The principal keeps photos of murdered students on her wall to remind her of the horrors she must face every day. Detention is held in the basement-hardly a place to make these kids feel wanted. Saddest of all, we feel an overall sense that most of these kids are trapped in a cycle of disappointment and violence from which they’ll never escape-most certainly not through ballroom dancing.

I’ve made the movie sound so somber. Rest assured, it’s full of great dancing, although the editor has a habit of cutting it up into fragments that mute the grace and fluidity.

What Pierre teaches these kids goes beyond mere dancing. He teaches them joy and self-respect, a currency that will take them further than the 50 bucks they might get for a stolen stereo.

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