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Checking in on dance movies

See what we thought of ”Beach Party,” ”Dirty Dancing,” ”Hairspray,” and more

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Checking in on dance movies

In a world where no good pop-culture fad ever goes unexploited, fast flicks based on dance crazes (and vice versa) are a great Hollywood tradition. The current wave of lambada movies is merely the latest in a long line of schemes that attempt to cash in on a fleeting phenomenon. The steps, songs, and styles may change, but the plot — boy meets girl and they triumph over adversity by dancing — is the same.

Beach Party
Chubby Checker’s two twist movies (1961’s Twist Around the Clock and 1962’s Don’t Knock the Twist) aren’t on video, but to see how Hollywood depicted gyrating ’60s teens one need only look to the beach where Frankie and Annette danced, romanced, and sang for six wholesome comedies. In their first outing, an antropologist (Bob Cummings) researches a book on the kids’ ”tribal customs” and helps bridge the audience’s generation gap by coaching the squares in slang, surfing, and style. This hokey artifact offers instructional demonstrataions of the twist, swim, and related phenomena. B-

Saturday Night Fever
Besides providing the quintessential ’70s image — a wide-lapeled, white bell-bottom suit, gold chains, and one hand pointing skyward — this mega-hit ennobled the disco culture by placing it in a credible socioeconomic context. ”Everybody’s gotta dump on somebody,” laments Tony Manero (John Travolta), a dead-end kid who just may outgrow the ignorance, racism, and misogyny of his working-class Brooklyn. Tony’s smooth floor moves bring him local status and authortiy, but an ambitious dance-contest partner (Karen Lynn Gorney) opens his eyes to the world across the river. Ignore the heavy-handed family psychodrama and savor the quaint disco routines choreographed by Lester Wilson. B+

Breakin’
Filmmakers ignored the culture in which break dancing developed until kids started spinning on their heads all over television. Then Hollywood turned the wild style into the mild style, marveling at the flash moves while downplaying the rest of the scene. In the glamorized Breakin’, a serious modern-dance student (Lucinda Dickey) finds her true artistic calling through two talented street dancers. The music is mostly mediocre; the trivial story merely kills time between production numbers, choreographed by Jaime Rogers. C-

Beat Street
Coproducer Harry Belafonte’s New York rendition of hip-hop life is grittier, much more realistic, and has far better music than Breakin’. But even sketchier shreds of a plot connect the explosive scenes of kids break dancing, rapping, partying, and painting graffiti on subway trains. Rae Dawn Chong heads the otherwise unknown but credible cast. C+

Dirty Dancing
If dirty dancing wasn’t an aboveground fad in 1963, the lascivious descendant of the lindy (and American predescessor of lambada) nearly became one after millions watched Patrick Swazye and Jennifer Grey demonstrate it. Despite a great cast, Dirty Dancing has a lame script that runs out of plot a half hour before the ending and music that waffles between the ’60s and the ’80s. The titular goings-on, mixed in with liberal doses of more refined dances, are mighty steamy, a barely symbolic symbol foe the desires of a repressed genereation about to enter the sexual revolution. Choreography by Kenny Ortega. B-

Shag
It’s 1963. Do you know where your prim Southern daughters are? Myrtle Beach, S.C., that’s where. Aided by some local boys, four innocents (Phoebe Cates, Annabeth Gish, Bridget Fonda, and Page Hannah) commit a pre-college rite of passage, scuttling their straitlaced lives in a surge of budding womanhood unleashed by the tamest dance since the minuet. Filled with the usual romantic tangles and yes, a shag contest, this is would-be nostalgia at its most predictable. Choreography by Kenny Ortega. C+

Hairspray
Bursting with wit, kitschy charm, and great music, John Waters’ recollection of 1962-63 Baltimore centers on a trendsetting but racially segregated teen dance-party TV show. As a ”hairhopper” who dances a path to racial harmony, Ricki Lake demonstrates a catalog of cool steps, including the mashed potato, the pony, the twist, the continantal, and the Madison. Choreography by Edward Love. A-

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