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Since 2004, there have been no ballroom dance movies of any significance. Fortunately that has changed with the recent release of Hallmark’s The Christmas Waltz.

Launched last week as part of Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas series, The Christmas Waltz is a thoroughly enjoyable romance that encompasses a ballroom dance story.

I was expecting a standard Hallmark romance, and of course that’s the case, but unlike so many dance pictures, it’s also a delightful story and one that features decent dance scenes and great chemistry between the two leads, Lacey Chabert and Will Kemp.

But why has it been so long since we’ve had a dance movie that hasn’t been depressing as a story? For an activity that is all about joy and harmony and togetherness, most of the motion pictures about ballroom dancers have tried too hard to apply a heavy overtone of cultural issues that takes away from the enjoyment of the story.

Historical context

There were great dance movies from the 30s through the mid-50s. Dance was used as a way to forget all the difficult challenges people were going through. Performers like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly gave people a way to forget their troubles and believe that no matter what you were facing, your life could be amazing if you danced.

Though not always great movies, these motion pictures were generally positive viewing experiences with stories that made you feel good. From Flying Down to Rio in 1933 all the way to Silk Stockings in 1957, these pictures presented dance in the context of watchable stories enhanced by the dancing. When they included aspects of difficulties such as poverty or war, those cultural issues were always played down so that when the final credits rolled, you were left on a positive note.

For the next few decades we had very little in the way of movies that celebrated dancing. Obviously this was related to big cultural shifts away from partner dancing.

The 1977 release of Saturday Night Fever featured spectacular disco dance scenes that inspired millions around the world, but the story… ugh! Themes of teenage peer pressure, suicide, gang warfare and family conflict totally overshadowed the film.

Over the next few years we had numerous “dance” movies with the same problem. All of them showed dancing as a way of escaping from bleak, depressing situations, with most of the focus on those issues. As a result, the greatness of the dancing didn’t overcome the negativity of the stories themselves.

In 1992 we got the totally enjoyable Strictly Ballroom by Baz Luhrmann. This was a lovely reflection of the kind of story you expect a dance movie to be, just like the old ones.

After that we had more decades with nothing remarkable in terms of dance entertainment. Shall We Dance, the Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez version released in 2004, was an Americanized remake of a much better Japanese movie from 1996. It could have been great but it too got overly philosophical, undoing much of the emotional value that the dance story tried to build.

For 16 years since we’ve had nothing of any significance to celebrate ballroom dance, an activity that is incredibly rich with beautiful story potential. Until now.

The Christmas Waltz, a refreshing change

The Christmas Waltz is a typical Hallmark romance. Yes, it’s predictable. But all the great ballroom dance movies have been predictable romances, so there’s nothing unusual about that. While not completely believable, the story doesn’t make you check your brain at the door.

The acting is good, production values are great, and the dancing is quite enjoyable. Much of it was choreographed by Canada’s Jean Marc Genereaux of “So You Think You Can Dance?” fame, assisted by Vancouver-area professional Crystal Li.

The story centers around a female lawyer whose fiancé puts his career ahead of their upcoming wedding. She decides to continue as a solo with the ballroom lessons they had booked, which leads to a growing friendship with her single ballroom teacher.

I liked the dancing, and in particular a lovely outdoor performance reminiscent of the famous scene in Singin’ in the Rain.

Wendy and I were tasked to play a small role as a dance couple taking lessons in the studio. We choreographed a short Cha Cha but ultimately the dance scene ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor and all you see is us exiting the ballroom. We’re not disappointed to have been cut, as our dance wouldn’t have added anything of value to the overall scene, but we figured they could at least have left the nice romantic picture line we ended with. Lacey and Will are both terrific, and were a real delight to work with. Will has a background in ballet and it shows, making him fully believable as a dance teacher.

In my view, the film does a good job of representing the joy and discovery of self-expression that ballroom dancing brings to the human experience. This is what I think a dance movie should be celebrating.

The Christmas Waltz is showing on the Hallmark channel and in Canada on W network.

George Pytlik

Author George Pytlik

Before turning pro, George achieved impressive results as an amateur competitor, holding the Senior (30+) Latin championship in BC, Canada for 7 consecutive years with his wife Wendy. The couple twice achieved a top-3 Canadian ranking in Senior Latin as well as a 3rd place Canadian ranking in 30+ Ten Dance. Today, George and Wendy are professional teachers with a vision of growing a strong dance community in Delta near Vancouver, BC.

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