`Dance With Me'? Well . . . If You Insist

Movie review XX 1/2 "Dance With Me," with Vanessa L. Williams, Chayanne, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Plowright, Jane Krakowski. Directed by Randa Haines from a script by Daryl Matthews. 126 minutes. Several theaters. "PG" - Parental guidance suggested for mild language and sensuality.

What is it about dance, that most joyous of arts, that inspires so many bad movies?

Director Randa Haines jumps on the dance-romance bandwagon this summer with "Dance With Me," a film that cheerfully embraces every possible dance-film cliche. It features stilted dialogue, some bad acting and a story that's downright silly, but somehow the movie manages to coast along on its dopey charm. It's fun, mindless entertainment, but "Singin' in the Rain" it ain't.

Vanessa L. Williams plays Ruby, a dance teacher and former competitive Latin-style ballroom dancer. She is notable mainly for an astonishing array of hair extensions: Throughout the film, which spans perhaps a month, her hair runs the gamut from shoulder- to waist-length, curly to straight, and dark brown to blond. What with her teaching job, young son and constant hair maintenance, it's remarkable that she has any time for romance.

The one-named Puerto Rican pop star Chayanne is Rafael, an ever-smiling immigrant from Cuba. He's hanging out at Ruby's Texas studio because of an unfortunate subplot involving Kris Kristofferson, who's supposedly Rafael's father. Anyway, there's a big dance contest, and Rafael and Ruby rather predictably fall in love, and people say things like, "The music tells me how to dance," "I don't want to be in love," "My legs are cramping!," and "I've been told I have a very attractive head."

Williams and Chayanne are odd choices in these roles - both are known more for their singing than their acting or dancing, and while they can cha-cha nicely, they're dwarfed by the numerous professional dancers in the film. Williams has obviously trained hard and learned a few flashy moves, which she executes with panache. Chayanne dances passionately, but rather strangely, jerking his body into strange contortions.

Other than Kristofferson, who skulks through the film with his jaw clenched, the supporting cast shows some flair. The great British actress Joan Plowright plays Bea, a regular at the dance studio, who dances a snazzy pas de deux with Chayanne late in the film. William Marquez (who can be seen in "The Mask of Zorro") struts about amusingly as the studio's second-in-command. Jane Krakowski, the angelic-looking blonde from "Ally McBeal" (and a veteran Broadway singer/dancer), gets to show off her dancing chops as an ambitious ingenue.

Haines tends to let her scenes drag on too long, but she does well with the colorful dance numbers. The amateurish script was contributed by first-timer Daryl Matthews, who also did much of the film's choreography.

As with most dance films, there are winning moments: Plowright's dance with Chayanne creates a giddy joy, because she's so clearly having a wonderful time.

And then there are the moments enjoyable on another level, because they're so silly. In the big scene at the World Dance Championships, Ruby is dancing in the arms of her rather nasty partner, Julian. She stares into the crowd at Rafael, who is stunningly back-lit. Stopping the dance, she looks longingly at him, grimacing, her Tammy Faye-like makeup giving her the look of a sad raccoon. I think this moment was intended to convey love and yearning and desire and inspiration, but really it just served as a warning of the pitfalls of wearing too much eyeliner. And, on that level, it worked just fine.