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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Making a Difference
by Betty Jo Tucker

What makes a great teacher? A passion for what he or she is teaching, of course. But a great teacher also cares as much for the students as the subject. In Take the Lead, the ballroom dance instructor portrayed by Antonio Banderas exemplifies such a teacher. He inspires his students to be better human beings while motivating them to learn dances they would ordinarily avoid like the plague.

Banderas fits the role of Pierre Dulaine, a former professional dancer turned ballroom instructor, as if he were born to play it. Oozing old-school gentility and grace, he commands the screen with elegant body language and an intensity that draws us to him immediately. (In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to being an avid Banderas fan -- so I might be a bit biased about his performance.)

After witnessing an act of violence by an inner-city high school student (Rob Brown), Dulaine decides to volunteer as a ballroom dance teacher at the school this student attends. When Dulaine makes his offer to no-nonsense Principal Augustine James (Alfre Woodard), she laughs and calls him a freak. However, because Augustine has no one to supervise detention that day, she lets Dulaine try handling it, betting he won’t return after meeting with the school’s worst students. She’s wrong.                          

Dulaine uses all his charm and skill to interest these hip-hopping teens in old-fashioned dances like the foxtrot, waltz, rumba and tango. Remember, this was before the tremendous success of TV’s Dancing with the Stars, so Dulaine’s task seemed an impossible dream to everyone but him. Watching this courtly gentleman win over the skeptical students, who refer to themselves as “rejects,” should be required viewing for teacher training classes. “I don’t see any rejects here,” he tells them. “All I see is a room full of choices.”

Through his dance instruction, Dulaine also imparts lessons about courtesy, respect, discipline, trust and self-esteem. But he learns something new himself -- the exuberant current dance forms his students already know so well. And he’s smart enough to incorporate these moves into his Dancing Classroom. As Dulaine works with his inner-city class, he gets to know each student and finds out how difficult their lives are. Some have survived a gang war; others are living with parents who suffer from substance abuse problems or worse.

Yes, we’ve seen this story many times before in movies like Coach Carter and Dangerous Minds -- but Take the Lead tells it with a flair all its own. Highlights include: a sexy tango featuring Banderas and a gorgeous dancer who “drops in” on Dulaine’s class one day; a final dance competition where Dulaine’s students strut their stuff; and poignant performances by Brown (Finding Forrester), Lauren Collins (Degrassi: The Next Generation) and fascinating newcomer Yaya DaCosta as three intriguing members of Dulaine’s class. However, perhaps because I’m a former teacher and dancer, I wish the film had concentrated even more on classroom dance sequences instead of interrupting its flow and pacing with so many clichéd sequences about the home life of characters played by Brown and DaCosta.

Take the Lead emerges as a wonderful fictionalized tribute to real-life Pierre Dulaine, the man responsible for introducing his popular Dancing Classrooms program into the New York City public schools. Last year’s Mad Hot Ballroom documentary gave viewers a sense of how successful this program has become, and Take the Lead -- with its marvelous Banderas performance -- shows how one dedicated teacher can make a difference in this crazy world of ours.

(Released by New Line Cinema and rated “PG-13” for thematic material, language and some violence. Reviewed after the sneak preview on April 1, 2006.)

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