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Missteps and questionable moves

'Take the Lead' trips on cliches, forgets lessons of hard work

Not only are the kids who stagnate in detention at the fictional New York City public high school in ''Take the Lead" the worst-behaved students. By the end of this pandering dramedy, we discover they're the most unorthodox ballroom dancers, too.

The movie partners all the cliches of the inner-city school drama with the cliches of the dance instructional, and the two keep stomping on each other's toes, while suggesting that a spoonful of hip-hop will make any medicine go down, even the stodgy tango.

Antonio Banderas stars as Pierre Dulaine, an urbane Spaniard who teaches ballroom dance to the wealthy. He arrives at principal Alfre Woodard's school to return her missing ID card and winds up volunteering to teach dance and manners to some her of more rambunctious students.

Obviously, they become lovable urban specimens of temperance and talent by the time the movie's done. Before then, the filmmakers prepare us to expect something horrific. Woodard leads Banderas into the humid bowels of her school as though she were walking Clarice Starling to meet Hannibal Lecter.

The rascals he winds up with are cuddlier, but just as randy. They're underprivileged boys and girls of various races, shapes, personality types, and sex drives. At least two of them come from dreary households -- Rock (Rob Brown from ''Finding Forrester") and Larhette (Yaya DaCosta, who was season three's runner-up on ''America's Next Top Model"). The duo's unhappy lives are intertwined by a tragedy. Yet forcing them into each other's arms, as ''Take the Lead" does, is asking much too much.

We never find out precisely why they or anybody else is in detention. (This is not ''The Breakfast Club," although I sincerely anticipate an all-urban version of that.) Presumably it's because they can't stop dancing. Whenever Dulaine comes to call on them, there's a party going on. They're allowed to have a boombox and are left unsupervised long enough for an old Christina Aguilera video to break out every afternoon.

Dulaine and the kids perform an old song and dance. Teacher wants to teach. Students won't let him. Then he reels them in by speaking their language, or rather, he lets them speak their language all over the pastime he loves. Indeed, when he tries to play an oldie for the class, someone tells him, ''Yo, man, I need the remix!" So Sarah Vaughan is out in favor of mash-ups combining standards and new stuff.

Pierre Dulaine is a real-life ballroom dancer and instructor who has inspired scores of New York elementary schoolers to merengue and waltz. If I were Dulaine or any of his pupils, I'd find ''Take the Lead" distressing. Not because Dianne Houston's script leans on enough ancient movie formulas to qualify as a question in the math portion of the SAT; nor because director Liz Friedlander, a veteran of so-so music videos, doesn't meet a sequence she can't turn into a montage more appropriate for a Sprite commercial. The movie would bug me because its makers don't seem to think much of ballroom dancing, or learning.

The villain here is the overworked teacher who doesn't have patience for ignorant kids. And the movie refuses to acknowledge the rigor and exuberance of ballroom dance that was taken seriously in the documentary ''Mad Hot Ballroom," set among New York's first through fifth grades.

Without making the kids into attitude-filled hip-hoppers, ''Take the Lead" would never have gotten made. As sweet and well-meaning as parts of the movie are, the filmmakers don't appear to trust their teenage audience to take this world seriously. Plus: There are soundtracks to sell! ''Mad Hot Ballroom" demonstrated that the art had an urgency even a 9-year-old could feel. But in ''Take the Lead," the big ballroom contest that the movie builds to rarely feels like the exacting athletic event that rewards practic e, sacrifice, and dedication. It seems like the prom.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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