Originally titled "Shut Up and Dance," the folks at Columbia Pictures eventually settled on the less brash "Dance With Me" for their venture into the salsa scene. And while the original title may have been catchier, this mild blend of Latin culture and ballroom dancing feels much more at home with its new title.
Following the death of his mother, Rafael Infante (Chayanne) flees his Cuban homeland for Houston, Texas, where his American father, John Burnett (Kris Kristofferson), runs a dance studio. While he's glad to help out the boy by offering him a job as a handyman and providing him a place to live, Burnett is unaware that he is Rafael's father.
Ruby Sinclair (Vanessa L. Williams) is the principal dance instructor at the studio. A former Latin-dance champion about to compete again, Ruby and the denizens of the dance palace are counting down the days until the World Open Dance championship in Las Vegas. A rather bitter single mom, Ruby finds herself in the awkward predicament of deciding whether to rejoin her former dance partner (Rick Valenzuela), also the father of her child, or to let herself be swept away by the charismatic, young Latino, Rafael.
Director Randa Haines scored a major coup by tapping the talents of Latin American superstar Chayanne for the role of Rafael. Displaying an amazingly genuine vulnerability and an infectious smile, the Puerto Rican-born singer lends incredible authenticity to the Cuban émigré Rafael. Williams, who was incredibly lackluster on her last concert tour swing through Orlando, shows renewed star power as Ruby. An accomplished dancer, Williams kicks up her heels and shows off her expert technique. And the chemistry between the two is potent.
But even two bright performances fail to rescue the jumbled script. Novice screenwriter and head choreographer Daryl Matthews tosses out so many plot lines that none of them achieve the rich payoff they deserve. The dance competition, which ends up finally stealing the film's focus, is significantly less interesting than the romance between Rafael and Ruby, and the film's keen and insightful glimpses into Latin culture.
But the biggest letdown is the falsely written revelation of fatherhood. Chayanne's face says a thousand words and comes through the scene unscathed, but the crusty Kristofferson -- the last actor you would think of as the owner of a dance studio -- severely stumbles on the inept script.
Though the film is strongly reminiscent of the much superior Australian sleeper "Strictly Ballroom," "Dance With Me" moves awkwardly through its competing story lines, leaving it essentially a star-making vehicle for Chayanne and a film-career boost for Williams.