"Shall We Dance?" steps difficult — even for Richard Gere

Richard Gere learns the steps from Jennifer Lopez as the pair glide across a hardwood floor to strains of ballroom music in the movie "Shall We Dance?" in theaters this weekend. It's a scene that's replicated across the country every day in dance studios nationwide.

But Gere says ballroom dancing wasn't a walk in the park despite his moves in "Chicago" in 2002.

"It's not easy," he says. "In many ways, tap dancing was easier than this. This is much more controlled," he says.

Ballroom dance teachers are hoping that Hollywood's latest will inspire audiences to put on their dancing shoes in the way "Saturday Night Fever" and "Dirty Dancing" did in the 1970s and '80s.

"Whenever professionals in the dance community see a movie like that come out, it's exciting. It generates new interest," says Michaella Avila, who owns New-York based danceSALSA studios. John Kimmins, competition chairman for the National Dance Council of America, says people rushed to learn the hustle after seeing "Saturday Night Fever."

"Enrollments tripled," Kimmins says. "People say, 'It looks like fun. Let's go take a few lessons.' "

"Shall We Dance?" is the story of Chicago lawyer John Clark (Gere), who seems to have it all: good looks, an upscale Colonial house and a loving wife and kids.

But like the protagonist in the 1996 Japanese original, Clark feels something missing in his life.

Reviewers for the original "Shall We Dance?" doubted the plot would translate to America because the tension in the first movie came in part from the Japanese taboo on embracing in public, but in the remake, Clark's motive — the pursuit of personal fulfillment and happiness — embodies an American ideal.

One day while riding home on the elevated train, Clark spies a beautiful woman (Lopez) staring pensively out of the window of a dance studio. One day he dashes from the train and enrolls in a beginner's class.

A mix of hilarity and drama follows, thanks to fellow students such as Stanley Tucci, who plays a devotee of Latin dances who pretends to be a sports nut to hide his passion from co-workers.

There are also the complications that arise from Clark's decision to keep the lessons a secret from his wife, played by Susan Sarandon.

Gere says his character joins the classes because of Lopez but soon realizes he loves to dance.

"He likes the way it makes him feel. He likes the camaraderie and the people there. He likes the team atmosphere of the ballroom dancing world," Gere says of his character.

Many people enter that world for the first time when they take lessons for a wedding, bar mitzvah, school dance or other special occasion, says dance teacher Martin Smith, of Thornwood, N.Y., whose pupils range in age from 4 to 96.

Though most people have taken a turn around the dance floor, ballroom dancing can be as demanding as any sport, Smith says.

Gere says learning to tap for his award-winning role in "Chicago" didn't prepare him for the rigors of the waltz, quickstep and tango.

Some of the physical humor in the movie came from Gere's experiences as a student — including a scene where he takes a tumble after losing his balance.

"The foibles of us learning how to dance, and what our teachers gave us, we plugged right back into the script," he says.

Gary McDonald, dancing coach for the film and a teacher in New Jersey, says Gere practiced six to eight hours a day four times a week from April to June of last year.

"His determination and his professionalism was so incredible. If you're learning to dance to be the star of the movie, there's a lot of pressure, there's no slacking off time," says McDonald, who has a small role in the movie dancing with Lopez in a flashback.

Though Gere demurs — "I benefited from some very good editing that made me look better than I probably really was" — Smith says he was impressed by the star's serious approach when he saw him in action.

A 45-minute lesson can leave a student perspiring, and Gere practiced for much longer. Director Peter Chelsom, who grew up in Blackpool, England — the epicenter of international ballroom competition — says he hopes "Shall We Dance?" will inspire audiences to move their feet.

"It's why the tango lesson is in there," Chelsom says. "It's why the Latin, the broader stuff, the more modern stuff, is in there. I don't know that 18-year-olds are going to learn to waltz, but if this movie makes 18-year-olds join a salsa club, hey, that's it. It doesn't matter what the form is as long as they're dancing."