I’ve been watching Baz Luhrmann’s incredible, eyebrow-raising movie Strictly Ballroom since I was a little girl, but it’s only recently that I have begun to see past the immediate appeal of the movie—the glitzy dancing, the ugly-duckling-transformation storyline—to what Luhrmann is trying to say. A thoughtful, innovative director who manages to avoid pretension (perhaps because he has made only 5 movies over the past 20 years), Luhrmann created the Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge) in the ‘90s and my favorite is still the one I’ve been watching since I was little. His first, his greatest. Strictly Ballroom.
The movie is set in the over-the-top world of competitive ballroom dancing in Australia in the early 1990s, and follows Scott, a dancer who wants to compete by dancing his own moves—moves that are not “strictly ballroom.” This raises a commotion in the world of ballroom dancing, and the only woman gutsy enough to dance with Scott is a novice named Fran. As Fran transforms from an awkward beginner to a beautiful dancer, Scott has to make choices about whether he wants to take the risk of dancing his own moves.
As a little girl, the biggest appeal of the movie was Fran’s transformation and the spectacle of glittery costumes in bright ballroom lights. But when I watched it a couple days ago and Hannah and I began discussing it (this is kind of a mixture of both of our thoughts…I’m just the one putting it into words), I realized that some of the moments in the movie that have resonated the most with me over the years are actually quite intentional on the part of Luhrmann and his team. What Luhrmann is really commenting on is the presence of beauty, the purpose of beauty, and the interaction between real beauty and the cheap, glitzy substitute we often put in its place.
It’s very clear that Fran is the true beauty of the movie—with minimal makeup and normal curly brown hair she stands in stark contrast to the primped and glittery cast of female dancers who wear next to nothing. Luhrmann makes the contrast obvious by the way the other women are filmed, and even for a little girl the movie gave a clear message that Fran’s true beauty came from her character. But Fran’s story is only a second application to Luhrmann’s real message, and though both make commentary on beauty, the more important and more subtle story is Scott’s search for beauty. His desire to dance his own moves could perhaps be taken as a metaphor for his need to find freedom from the constraints of society, but I don’t think that’s what Luhrmann is going for. Scott wants to dance his own moves because he realizes the cheapness of the world the ballroom dancers have created—a world full of beauty that decays and stagnates in its own worthlessness.
The very first scene of the movie shows off the disparity between Scott’s world and his desires. Opening on shadowed silhouettes of Scott and his partner, it’s breathtakingly beautiful to see the outline of a man and woman preparing to step onto the dance floor, and we hold our breath as we wait for the full glory the silhouettes promise us. But when they step into the light and march onto the floor, we are presented with something brash and glittery and fake, and immediately realize that the shadows at the beginning were much more satisfying than this thing we’re watching—punctuated by Luhrmann’s abrasive, too-close shots of the over-makeuped and lined faces of the dancers and spectators.
That sense of alienation stays with us through the first part of the movie, though Luhrmann throws in enough humor and spectacle that we begin to settle into the pace of the movie and enjoy ourselves. Scott is searching for something; we don’t know what, but we definitely want him to be able to dance his own moves. Even when Fran enters the movie and begins to dance with Scott, Lurhmann keeps the shots just on the edge of something—their scenes are shot in darkened studios, shadowy and reminiscent of the very first scene. Maybe, we decide, that shadowy beauty is as good as it gets.
When true beauty first invades Scott’s world, he doesn’t recognize it, and Lurhmann portrays it as hostile, scary, and unknown. Scott is walking Fran to the house where her Spanish immigrant family lives beside the train tracks, and the setting is striking in its normalcy. The rest of the movie up to this point has been one bright, fast-paced ride on the bedazzle express, and Luhrmann uses devices to alienate us along with Scott—the barking of a dog, the frightened glance of Fran’s grandmother. Luhrmann wants us to be just as surprised as Scott when the moment comes.
In the next part of the movie, the focus shifts ever so slightly. We have been constantly barraged with close-ups, but now the ballroom dancers grow more sinister. The scenes with Fran begin to sharpen, until Luhrmann presents us with a clear parallel of the two worlds Scott is wavering between. As Tina Sparkle—Scott’s potential new partner—dances on stage with her current partner, undulating in the overly perfect and utterly fake world of ballroom dancers, Scott and Fran dance to the same music backstage, separated from the glitz only by a curtain. In one of the most beautiful dance scenes I’ve seen, and definitely my favorite, Luhrmann films the couple dancing to the Doris Day classic “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” shrouding them in the shadows we’ve come to associate with real beauty.
When the couple is spotted and Scott’s family intervenes, we begin to feel claustrophobic. This is largely because of Luhrmann’s less than subtle filming, and he throws off all question of who the bad guys are as Fran sits in a chair, surrounded by women who are shot in bright lights, close-up, at an upward angle that seethes with hostility. This is the world Scott is struggling to escape. This is beauty, this is correct. But by now we know, along with Scott, how untrue that is.
When Scott leaves the competition and follows Fran home, he has no idea anymore what he’s searching for. Again, we’re struck by the simplicity—the boringness of Fran’s home. Her family is having a fiesta, and Scott stands beside the garbage cans and calls to her to come join him. Come dance, he tells her. I want to dance with you. What is it about Fran that is so alluring to Scott? And then her father sees them, and his hostility is frightening after the niceness and glamour of the dancing world. But for the first time in the movie, we realize that he is sincere. This man, living a normal life, is so starkly in contrast to the rest of the characters that we’re thrown completely off balance.
When Scott tells him he and Fran have just been dancing, he asks Scott to show him the Paso Doble. This is something Scott knows. We breathe a sigh of relief. Scott knows how to dance. We’re alright. We won’t be harmed by this strange, real, too-honest man. But when Scott and Fran begin to dance, surrounded by the friends and family of the immigrants, Fran’s father and the others laugh. We are tempted to laugh too; somehow, without the bright lights and the skanky costumes, the ballroom moves are ridiculous and laughable. But we, like Scott, are frustrated. “What’s so funny??” Scott yells, and the crowd immediately stills.
“Paso Doble?” Fran’s father asks. He stands and takes off his jacket. “Paso Doble.” And then, before we’re ready, he dances. He dances a Paso Doble beyond Scott’s skill. Alien, commanding and magnificent, this man completely wipes away every dance move that has been done up to this point. When he is finished, he looks Scott in the eye and once more repeats, “Paso Doble.” Double-step. Out of your experience, and exactly what you’ve been searching for.
Luhrmann bends all his skills toward showing us that this is where the true beauty lives. From the colorful streamers to the tapping of a cigar against a cup, to the beautiful release as Scott is invited to dance with Fran’s family, we know that we have found it. Scott’s spinning, arms-raised moment of delight, punctuated by the bright light of a train passing through the train yard echoes our own delight—our realization that here, in the dirty world of real life, Scott has found the beauty he was seeking. And it’s neither in the neon lights of the ballroom nor the shadows of backstage.
What really makes Strictly Ballroom great is not just the fact that Scott finds true beauty, but that Scott does something with it. The final part of the movie is about Scott learning to dance like Fran’s father—pushing past the cheap beauty of the ballroom dance world to the harder, elusive beauty that, as Fran’s grandmother puts it, “Comes from the heart.” And lest this sound like a cheesy “believe in yourself” kind of movie, that’s not it at all. The movie isn’t about feeling good about oneself. It’s about not settling for easy beauty, and about truly searching for the things in life that are worth it and then using them to inform your art. The world of ballroom is cheap because it has settled, instead of realizing that true beauty is found not in escaping and masking the things of this world, but in taking the time to notice them and expending effort to transform them into something that’s worth it.
Luhrmann himself has done just this with his first—and best—film. He takes us on a journey with Scott, uses the beauty of the real world to showcase the cheapness of our illusions, and then makes the statement that art, whether it be dancing or filmmaking, can only truly be beautiful when it is based on things that matter. When the world of ballroom dancing makes one final last-ditch effort to draw Scott back into its embrace, the colors and the bright lights and the even more over-the-top face paint is almost nauseating, compared to the simple beauty we’ve just witnessed at Fran’s fiesta.
Though Scott still has about thirty minutes of decisions to make, we’ve already made ours. Just as Luhrmann intended, we are through with strictly ballroom. Not because we’re on a power trip, or because we’re trying to assert our free will. Because, like Scott, we’re bored with the mockery of glitz and the façade that everything is perfect. We want to see real life, and we want to stop and take the time to notice the headlights on a train and the simple lines of tree branches. We want to notice these things and then allow them to inform our art and our interactions with others, just as Fran’s father allows them to inform his Paso Doble. Just as Scott and Fran allow them to inform their final, fabulous ballroom dance together.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria