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How one white girl found her groove

by Kaori Shoji

Save the Last Dance

Rating: * * *
Director: Thomas Carter Running time: 113 minutes Language: English
Now showing

How are your hips these days? Do they rotate, swivel, slither like a separate appendage you can just detach and unleash onto the dance floor? If the answer is “huh?” then see “Save the Last Dance” for a demonstration. It takes something like this film to make you realize that whoever invented the word “hip-hop” knew what he was talking about, except it’s much more than hips hopping. It’s hips doing things so, uh, sexy, that in comparison mere sex starts to look like photocopying or attending a marketing conference and gazing at figures on an overhead projector.

Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas in “Save the Last Dance”

“Save the Last Dance,” however, is not one of those dance movies that leave you feeling uncoordinated, inadequate and fat — it escapes the cliche of dance movies, since the lead actress is a little bit of all these things. And yet she hip-hops anyway and also gets a supercute guy in the process. This, in my book, is what movies should be about. If only more directors realized this truth and used a little less of J-Lo and Penelope Cruz and more of, say, Rosie O’Donnell (no offense to Rosie) in a steamy love affair with George Clooney, the world will be a better place.

At the center of this picture is Julia Stiles — a fresh, blonde actress who is perfectly cast. She plays Sara, a wannabe prima ballerina living with a devoted single mom who comes to all her performances and auditions. On the day she tries out for Julliard, however, mom dies in a car accident. Sara blames herself and resolves to give up dancing — forever.

She moves to Chicago where her divorced dad, Roy (Terry Kinney), leads a Bohemian/musician life in an inner-city neighborhood. Sara becomes the only white girl at the local school but has no trouble hooking up with Chenille (Kerry Washington), who offers to take Sara to her first hip-hop club and tells her that “cool” is no longer the cool word for cool. It’s “slammin’.”

Hip-hop opens Sara’s eyes to new moves and grooves, and Chenille’s brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) offers to teach her some steps after school. The two of them practicing to sounds blaring out of Derek’s boom box in an old warehouse provide the best scenes in the film — the visual contrast of dark and fair enhanced by the obvious contrast in the way they move and use their bodies.

Remember a picture called “White Men Can’t Jump”? Well, this white woman, for all her plie training, “can’t dance worth shit” compared to Derek’s slick maneuvers. But the sight of her trying is fun and cute and even instructive. Derek shows her that hip-hop moves extend to even mundane details like sitting on a chair, walking out the door or standing on a street corner — there are ways to do it so that every little motion becomes a coordinated attitude.

Apart from the thrills of the dance scenes and the sweet, teacher/student relationship between Sara and Derek, “Save the Last Dance” might bug you with its soft focus. In the real world, Sara would have had much more trouble being accepted by Chenille and her clique of hip-hop princesses; she would have felt uneasy about attending such a school; and would have felt just a little uncomfortable about being the only white female in a hip-hop club. All of this is pretty much glossed over since Sara, the cossetted naive girl from suburbia, remains totally oblivious to the race issue — that is until a pouty dreadlocked hippette called Nicky goads her into a catfight. But nothing really registers with Sara except dancing and Derek — her concentration is such that it’s almost Zen.

No doubt director Thomas Carter (who also helmed another dance flick called “Swing Kids”) was concerned about social issues but he only half-heartedly addresses the usual problems: gang warfare and teen/single motherhood. Chenille is constantly shirking her responsibilities as a teenage mom and she vents her irritation on Sara. Derek has attained his passport out of the neighborhood with a full scholarship to Georgetown, but risks losing his gangsta friends whom he had grown up with and loves. But these incidents seem so alien and detached from the main flow of the movie (dance, dance, dance!) that it’s hard to make the connection.

And why try? “Save the Last Dance” is designed and engineered to make you come out of the theater, attempt to do a little hip spin on the sidewalk (if this fails and you fall flat on your face, this office will not be held responsible) then shamble on down to the nearest Nike shop for the latest model.

This isn’t a bad thing, right? Right? Ten years after “Do the Right Thing,” and a white girl is learning to hip-hop in an all-black club. As Chenille would say, “That is like, slammin’, honey.”