Red Curtain Trilogy Thinkpiece 1: How Much Glitter Gets Used in Ballroom Dancing?
There are certain movies that one tends to associate with becoming a person who loves film; for me, those movies are the Red Curtain Trilogy by Baz Luhrmann. Getting the DVD boxset was the first time I had gotten a birthday present that made me feel included in an actual “mature” world, as though having access to these particular movies made my tastes somehow more elevated or adult or less, I don’t know, “fourteen years old with a combination DVD/VCR player on the bedroom floor ready to sit through hours of director commentary and special features.” Maybe it was because of the association I created between these particular movies, the actual time I spent watching those director commentaries, and that it was probably the first time I was thinking about film and movies and cinema as something created by a human being—and I had wanted to know more about it not because of fannish interest in the intellectual property featured in the film, as was the case when I was a kid obsessed with Harry Potter and Star Wars, but because I genuinely was interested in the idea of movies as art. Each of these movies strike different nostalgia chords, but it is worth pointing out that they do all share a common romantic trend, and, with the exception of the last film in the trilogy, all of them have a very strong 90s visual aesthetic which I think has seen a relative resurgence in internet fashion. At their core, they’re very campy movies, and maybe that’s why it was so easy to immediately recognize them as something that had been created with intention.
Strictly Ballroom (1993), the first movie in the trilogy, was followed by the much better known Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001). It takes place within the world of an extremely insular Australian competitive ballroom dancing scene which, within the movie’s own narrative universe itself, has its own insularity: at no point is there much assumption that the characters are capable of interacting with the general world outside of ballroom dancing, and audiences are almost expected, in a way, to be able to just keep up. While the film is part mockumentary, and the audience becomes introduced to the main characters via brief interview, the assumption is that when references are made to other (background) characters, that the audience will be aware of who is being talked about, as when Liz Holt, main character Scott Hasting’s original dance partner, hopes for Pam Short’s legs to be broken before it happens—the effect becomes that the audience is just as much a part, for the time of the film, of the audience in the dance hall, participatory in the spectacle. The characters exist within the world of the dance studio and then the competition hall, until there is an opportunity to break apart from it. Strictly Ballroom is great for a few reasons; for one, it sets the tone for the kind of cinematography that Luhrmann uses in the two later films of the trilogy. The language of the film and the way that the characters most effectively communicate with each other is through the use of their bodies and dance, in the same way that Romeo + Juliet uses Shakespeare’s verse and Moulin Rouge! the reinvention of popular music, and, like both of the other stories, it takes familiar stories to the audience and reimagines them: In Strictly Ballroom, the main story being told is similar, in many ways, to the Pygmalion transformation myth (Scott Hastings takes Fran, a “beginner” dancer and turns her into a champion, but also, she teaches him how to refine the movement of his non-federation steps into something more intelligible) and also the Ugly Duckling: Fran is plagued, at the beginning of the film, with frizzy hair, big glasses, bad skin, and unfashionable dress.
The movie is comfortable because it’s familiar, tense exactly where we as the audience would expect it to be: there exists the expected crescendo of unresolved sexual tension that builds between Fran and Scott as they practice the rumba, which Scott describes as “the dance of love,” and which will eventually serve as their own audition piece to be partners. The “training montage” is set over “Time After Time,” and Fran’s physical transformation takes place at the same time she’s becoming that stronger dancer, someone who might be more acceptable—at least, in Scott’s eyes—to his mother and her business partner and dance studio owner, Les Kendall. What Scott doesn’t realize of course is that Fran’s transformation is only apparent to him: he has fallen in love with her, while Les and his mother Shirley are focused still only getting him partnered with the best dancer (who is now Tina Sparkles). The miscommunication is expected, too—but then, so is the pay off when Scott has to win Fran back and convince her that she’s the one he wants to dance with. Here’s the choice: do you want to dance your steps, or do you want to win?
This scene, where Fran peers out of the wings at Tina Sparkles, and whispers, “I could never do that,” is wonderful. “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” plays—first softly, then overtaking the scene, though it seems as though the music is not anywhere but within Fran and Scott’s own internal rhythm. They attract an audience; Scott and Fran are perfectly fine in their own world until Liz makes a comment and Fran realizes that the bubble containing that world has popped and falls, distracted. They’re separated immediately at the fall, the moment disrupted, and Fran is dismissed by Shirley while Scott is reprimanded by Barry Fife, the federation president. Once again, Scott is ambushed, and his friends and family attempt to get him to agree to a dance partnership with Tina—but he repeats the complaints that Fran has had before that everyone is too scared to do anything different, and runs to find Fran.
Once again, Fran’s self-doubt compared to the other dancers is brought up when she and Scott are reunited; she is well aware of the differences between her dancing ability and what dancers like Liz and Tina are capable of, and perhaps this rings familiar: the sting of comparison makes cowards of many of us. When we’re worried about how we look or what we can do compared to what others can do, we occasionally opt out of doing entirely; and while Fran has made a partial transformation during the rooftop dancing with Scott, she’s still in a very vulnerable position where, despite being able to call out when others are behaving cowardly (this being one of the running themes of the film), she herself is extremely susceptible to the perceived comparison between herself and other women. Which is nascent, probably, and while it’s important that Scott tells her, “I don’t want you to be like them. You’re better than all of them,” that places the audience (and Fran) in a somewhat complicated place. On the one hand, that kind of validation of the self needs to come from, well, the self, but on the other—external validation, especially from a hot guy who wants to dance with you and not other hot girls is also extremely nice.
That complication of external validation becomes somewhat resolved through the messaging of the film itself. Scott’s primary conflict throughout the film is that he’s not permitted to dance his own steps, and frequently the question comes up about whether or not the dancing federation is going to allow new steps. Each time, of course, the answer is no: when you allow people to dance their own steps, you can’t charge them in order to teach them your steps, which is how the federation makes some of its money. The cautionary tale is that Scott’s own father had lost the Grand Prix dancing his own steps and had lost his mind in the process, swearing never to dance again, though, the official messaging put forth by Barry Fife to Scott in an attempt to dissuade him from pursuing his own steps is in direct contradiction with the dancing the audience witnesses Scott’s father doing throughout the movie. The whole point of the film is to have the bravery to do the things that make us whole, regardless of whether or not a corporation or institution say that we shouldn’t because that just isn’t how things are done. Once again, Scott has to make the decision between winning and doing the thing that will make his heart whole.
Unfortunately for Fran, she’s the one who’s negatively impacted when he makes cowardly choices; there is collateral damage when we act in ways that are contrary to what our hearts want us to do, the narrative reinforcing the severity of making the wrong (or right) choices and the significance of making them before they’re too late. Scott spends the majority of the film avoiding his father, Doug, the only person in the movie who isn’t unhappy or stressed or consumed by the world of the dancing federation. Barry Fife, villainous of course, lied to Scott, but Doug’s biggest regret was that he didn’t dance his own steps at the Grand Prix after all. By living their lives in fear, they had lost after all.
Fran and Scott appear during the Latin dance to do their version of the paso doble that they had been practicing since Scott went to her after rejecting Tina as his partner, the camera catching the light of all the sparkles of their costumes. The music gets cut, and they’re officially disqualified—but as they’re about to leave the floor, Doug’s clapping, followed by Fran’s father and grandmother’s, gives them a rhythm to begin dancing to again. Ultimately, the federation is defeated both through Fran and Scott’s continued dance, Doug and Shirley’s return to the floor, and the symbolic knocking over of both Barry Fife and with him the table of Grand Prix trophies.
The movie ends with all spectators joining on the dancefloor, like a reminder that dancing is something we all do instinctively when we hear music, whether we do it professionally or perhaps not very well at all. Strictly Ballroom isn’t a major masterpiece of cinema, and maybe it doesn’t really rehash the Ugly Duckling story in a particularly new way, nor does it take significant deviations from its expected plotline, but the familiarity in it makes its beats something which are more comforting rather than any real detraction. It does lack moustaches, which is a real drawback, but the major significance of this film is that it does lead into the more ambitious projects of the trilogy that it’s a part of by setting up the auteur lens through which stories get told in that cinematic language. The movies of the trilogy are not interconnected through their plots or characters, but the threads hold enough together, and they don’t get started without something like Strictly Ballroom, which, much like Fran, starts a little rough around the edges with high ambitions and strong emotions. When Scott has no partner at the beginning, it’s her who offers first, even before the auditions begin, and even after she calls him out for being gutless and willing to bend to the will of Shirley and Les in order to win at any cost to himself, she immediately bursts into tears—which is part of why he agrees to try dancing with her in the first place. The familiar pacing of the narrative makes it something which is easy to put on and know where you are, even if it’s something you haven’t watched before, and to get a sense of direction in the film, and it helps, too, that even the characters who initially seemed to get in the way of Fran and Scott’s partnership at the beginning ultimately have Scott’s best interests in mind: at the end, mean Liz who hopes for Pam’s broken legs and makes fun of Fran for being a beginner is the one who turns the music back on for Fran and Scott’s dancing, and even Shirley’s push for Scott’s winning the Grand Prix is driven by a desire to see her son have what she wasn’t able to, even though it’s the misguided thought that our children’s goals are automatically the same as our own and achievable through the ways we should have been able to achieve the ones we couldn’t achieve ourselves.
What’s significant, too, is the fact that for all of the people that Scott potentially hurts when he avoids making choices with his own best interests in mind—and to be clear, for the narrative, Scott’s best interests are the ones in which he is being as true to himself as he can be—when Scott makes the choices in which he is brave, and does stick up for himself and for integrity, he opens the door for others to do the same, which suggests a really refreshing take away: when we do the right thing, others get the opportunity to make the choice to do the right thing, too.
Jill is a writer and academic whose scholarship primarily focuses on popular culture, trauma studies, conflict, and girlhood. Her dream job is to be the kind of hermit rich, landowning folk in the late-Regency period would hire to sit on their highly cultivated "wild lawns."