Strictly Ballroom: 'I want to dance with you'

Strictly Ballroom: 'I want to dance with you'
M&A Film Corporation
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Scott (Paul Mercurio) dances alone while Fran (Tara Morice) watches from a hidden vantage point. She tells him that she likes his rule-breaking style and wants to partner him at the Pan Pacific championships.

Strictly Ballroom is a modern fairytale. Fran is the ugly duckling dance student no-one notices. Scott is the princely son of a dancing dynasty who has been groomed for greatness. Everyone criticises Scott for wanting to break the conventions of ballroom dancing except Fran. Her support and brave declaration of wanting to partner Scott sets the romance of the 'commoner’ and the 'royal’ in motion. Notes by Richard Kuipers

Film synopsis

Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) has been trained from the age of six to become a ballroom dancing champion. His ambitious mother, Shirley (Pat Thomson), sees a golden future for Scott with his partner Liz (Gia Carides). But Scott’s desire to bring his own steps into traditional dances finds his career in danger. Liz breaks the partnership to take up with Ken Railings (John Hannan), and Scott is warned by conservative dance officials Les Kendall (Peter Whitford) and Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) not to break the rules. Fran (Tara Morice), a shy student at the academy run by Shirley Hastings and Les Kendall, tells Scott she wants to dance with him at the Pan Pacific championships. She takes him to meet her father Rico (Antonio Vargas) and grandmother Ya Ya (Armonia Benedito), who inspire Scott with lessons on how to dance the paso doble. Shirley insists that Scott partner the accomplished Tina Sparkle (Sonia Kruger) at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix. Scott reluctantly agrees before realising his error and asks Fran if she will partner him. When Barry Fife disqualifies them during the competition, Scott’s father, Doug (Barry Otto), steps forward to support the couple. Barry’s lone handclap turns into a thunderous ovation. Scott and Fran thrill the audience with their interpretation of the paso doble.

Additional Curator's Notes

Strictly Ballroom is one of the most popular Australian films ever made. A smash hit on home soil and a considerable success everywhere else it was released, Baz Luhrmann’s debut ranks 6th on the all-time box-office chart for Australian movies with a domestic gross of $21.76 million (March 2008 figures). Evolved from a 30-minute play Luhrmann first devised and staged in 1986, the story of a young rebel triumphing over conservative old fuddy-duddies is nothing new but the execution is so colourful and eccentric it hardly matters. With the crucial contributions of costume designer Angus Strathie, production designer Catherine Martin, choreographer John 'Cha Cha’ O’Connell and cinematographer Steve Mason, Luhrmann creates a universe in which only dance exists.

From the mockumentary-style opening scenes to the final curtain there is not the slightest hint of what lies beyond the rehearsal studios and championship ballrooms inhabited by these obsessed characters. It is a fairytale land complete with a handsome and troubled prince, his regal and manipulative mother, an ugly duckling commoner and a wicked old autocrat desperately clinging to power. Everyone apart from Scott and Fran falls into the realms of comic grotesquerie, yet Strictly Ballroom still has the magic ingredient of authenticity. Luhrmann attended dance competitions in his youth and brings his inside knowledge to the screen with exaggerated but always believable depictions of the politics and flamboyant personalities involved in the competitive ballroom dancing scene. Balancing the delightfully unrestrained melodrama and kitschy décor is a love story that presses all the right emotional buttons.

In his screen debut, Paul Mercurio proves not only a superb dancer (he was Principal Dancer with the renowned Sydney Dance Company from 1982–92) but also a likeable and natural actor in a role he seems born to play. Fellow debutant Tara Morice, who almost didn’t get the part because she was not a trained dancer, is a perfect match in the Cinderella role. A wallflower at first, but no shrinking violet once she has Scott’s attention, Fran is a feisty young woman who’s not afraid to call him a 'gutless wonder’ when it looks like he’ll cave in and conform. Sweet without ever becoming sugary, the romance is firmly founded on dedication to dance and flourishes once Scott is led out of his stifling environment by Fran. Perhaps the most entrancing and passionate scenes take place in the almost surreal house-cum-tavern-cum-open-air dance studio where Fran’s family and friends congregate. The thunderous tattoo of handclapping and boot stamping as Rico and Ya Ya teach Scott how to 'feel’ the paso doble is a spine-tingling prelude to the show-stopping finale.

Strictly Ballroom rejoices in cheerfully vulgar (but never mean-spirited) Australian humour and is buoyed by wonderful supporting performances. Pat Thomson, who sadly died before the film was released, is a riot as Scott’s manic mother, Bill Hunter is a splendidly hissable villain and John Hannan hams it up wonderfully as boozy, bottle blonde dancer Ken Railings. Strictly Ballroom won six AFI awards including Best Film and Best Director and instantly catapulted Baz Luhrmann into the top rank of Australian filmmakers. Like Scott and Fran at the Pan Pacifics, Luhrmann won the hearts of audiences by putting on a dazzling cinematic display of the 'crowd-pleasing moves’ Barry Fife warned Scott about.

Strictly Ballroom was released in Australian cinemas on 20 August 1992.

Education Notes

This clip shows Scott alone in a studio performing his individual style of dancing in front of the mirror, unaware that Fran, a shy dance student, is secretly watching him. Scott uses every part of this private space to practise, accompanied by an upbeat rhythmic soundtrack. His free-form choreography contrasts markedly with the ‘strictly ballroom’ rules of the dancing world. Fran approaches Scott with an ambitious plan to partner with him at the Pan Pacific championships, and to dance ‘his way’. Scott is incredulous.

Educational value points:

  • This clip shows an important turning point in the film when Scott (Paul Mercurio) reveals that he wants to free himself from the strictures of ballroom dancing and explore the artistry of his own dance form. His free-form choreography contrasts markedly with the ‘strictly ballroom’ rules that he secretly wants to challenge. Fran (Tara Morice) watches his performance and suggests her longed-for dance partnership with him.

  • In keeping with the fairytale trope, or theme, Fran is presented in this clip as the ‘ugly duckling’. Plain-looking and awkward, she is enthralled by Scott, who is presented as the ‘swan’ – graceful, poised and self-assured on the dance floor. Luhrmann sets the scene for Fran’s transformation when Fran declares her desire to partner Scott at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix, creating the opportunity for change.

  • This clip features a typical Luhrmann theme, a couple struggling against the odds. Scott is determined to challenge the rules he has been warned to abide by and Fran shows her belief in him when she says ‘I want to dance with you, your way’. Fran has to overcome her lack of dance experience and her ungraceful manner to partner Scott and to win the respect of the ballroom-dancing world at the Pan Pacific championships.

  • Scott and Fran are depicted as opposites in this clip, on the verge of forming an unlikely dance partnership. The enormous physicality and adventurousness of Scott’s dancing and his smooth looks contrast with Fran, who appears shy and gawky, and whose dancing, it could be assumed, is clumsy and awkward also. Fran appears courageous, even foolhardy, in telling Scott that she wants to dance creatively with him in the competition.

  • Various film techniques are used to create the drama of Strictly Ballroom, and some of the techniques are seen in this clip. Close-up and wide-angled shots focus on Scott as the dancer, alone in his world, viewed from and towards the perspective of the mirror. The light flooding the studio illuminates the dancer and his energy. The editing shows Fran as the voyeur gradually emerging from the opening in the doorway into the expanse of Scott’s private world.

Production Company:
M&A Film Corporation
Tristram Miall
Baz Luhrmann
Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
David Hirschfelder
Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, Gia Carides, Bill Hunter, Barry Otto, Peter Whitford, Pat Thomson